“No contract! No content!” and “Here’s a pitch: Pay us, Bitch!” Thus the Hollywood members of the Writers Guild of America colourfully voice their views during their strike against the studios, streaming services and networks. It is expected to last a while. The last one, in 2007-08, lasted 100 days.

Money and staffing are big issues. But what caught my attention is an issue that will undoubtedly raise its head a very great deal in the future. The writers want companies to guarantee that artificial intelligence (AI) will not encroach on their credits and compensation. The studios say that is a non-starter. According to the studios “AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone.”

Indeed it does. In Hollywood and everywhere else.

Growing fears of AI took a leap when the latest generation, termed generative AI or chatbots, appeared. Tools like OpenAI’s GPT-4 seem not only able to perform human tasks but to perform them creatively, writing a poem or painting a picture indistinguishably from how a human might do it.

For example a Forbes writer asked ChatGPT Plus to “write a haiku about the sun” and it came up with:

“Golden Orb Ascends
Warmth embraces Earth below
Life awakes with light.”

Looks good to me.

A lot of people are getting very worried about what this new technology could get up to aside from writing poetry, including scientist Geoffrey Hinton. Hinton was the leader of the group that solved the problem of enabling a neural network to become a constantly improving learner, the key to chatbots. He is often referred to as “the godfather of AI.” Hinton recently resigned from Google in order to freely express his fears about the technology.

He is concerned that the new machines could learn better and faster than humans. He is particularly concerned that this powerful technology is entirely in the hands of a few huge corporations.

This latter concern is certainly justified. But should we be worried about the machines’ learning ability? The Hollywood writers are, and their concerns must be taken seriously. Like the Luddites of the 19th century, they are concerned that automation will reduce them from skilled workers to less skilled, and cheaper, workers.

But, inasmuch as the latest AI can replace human hours of work with machine hours, we should be pleased. It meshes nicely with another imperative—reducing global population.

We must reduce populations (and indeed they are now declining in important parts of the world including China) in order to reduce our demand on the planet’s resources and bring ourselves closer to sustainability. Fortunately, that’s in the cards.

A study reported on the Science X internet news portal Phys.org projects a world population approaching nine billion by the middle of the century, then a rapid decline. It could peak even earlier if we take aggressive measures to raise living standards in the developing world.

But declining populations means aging populations and that in turn means a declining work force of younger workers supporting an increasing number of retirees. And this is exactly the bill that AI and automation can fill. Humans working less, machines working more.

To get buy-in we will have to take the concerns of people such as the Hollywood writers with the greatest seriousness. We must ensure that people who are replaced by machines or whose work value is diminished by machines can be assured of meaningful work that allows them to live in dignity.

Leaving them adrift is not only morally wrong but dangerous. American workers elected Trump and the Brits brexited because they felt abandoned and were desperate for somebody or something that made them matter. The result is a threat to democracy in the U.S. and to the economy in Britain. This we cannot afford.

Our federal government has wisely created a Sustainable Jobs Plan for workers dispossessed by the transition to a sustainable economy. It was created largely to deal with the phasing out of the fossil fuel industries. We will need much more of this. And if we make it part of the social contract, we can indeed be on a path to sustainability.

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