the monitor is to weekly column dedicated to everything that happens in the world of WIRED culture, from movies to memes, TV and Twitter.
Baz Luhrmann fits in well here. The Australian writer-director-producer is known for his flashy, hyper-realistic style, and on this particular New York night he finds himself in a dimly lit former taxi depot in Chelsea, talking to a robot. the name of the bot is ai-yeah; she is a painter powered by artificial intelligence. (Yes, she identifies as female.) Before Luhrmann took the stage next to her, he was doing a watercolor as people gawked and took photos of her. “You’ve seen ElvisAi Da? she asked her. She paused for an almost awkward period before answering. His favorite Luhrmann film is Romeo + Juliet.
The director was unfazed. “I’m not afraid of AI,” Luhrmann told me before the presentation, which he gave as part of the unveiling of a new art installation called I saw this, I did this. He then backed off a bit, clarifying that he’s not afraid of AI taking his job as director. “I spoke to Ai-Da this morning and I said, ‘Should we worry about AI destroying the world?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely.’” Ultimately, Luhrmann says, AI is a new technology, and how it will be used, creatively or nefariously, is up to humans.
Almost every writer, director, musician, and painter is facing the question of AI right now. Many responses echo Luhrmann’s. It depends on his interactions with technology. Members of the Writers Guild of America, who are currently on strike, worry that studios will one day want AI to write scripts that human writers then correct for a lower fee. Frank Ocean fans are reportedly being scammed into paying for machine-generated songs. Visual artists claim that AI models are being unfairly trained in their work. This week, author Stephen Marche published a novel he wrote with considerable help from the Large Language Model (LLM) tools ChatGPT, Sudowrite, and Cohere.
The outcome of these conflicts over the use of AI in pop culture will have ramifications for decades to come. That’s why the discussions are so heated. Technology has been evolving and, excuse me, disrupting things long enough now that people know the signs. Without some shared laws, beliefs, and ethics to govern the ways AI can be used, it could spiral out of control. Without the guidelines currently employed by the US Copyright Office that copyrighted works must be human authored, without rules about what works AI can do, chaos reigns.
Ironically, chaos is what Luhrmann notes humans can handle and AI can’t. “Artists, to a person, are generally self-medicated flaws and chaos within them,” he says. “What AI just doesn’t have at its core is random chaos. Excitement.” I look at the sign on the WGA picket line that said “ChatGPT does not have childhood trauma.” The director agrees. “There’s an understandable fear,” he says, “because when you get this massive change, there’s going to be things caught in the crossfire.”
That’s not to say I think AI can replace human creativity, at least not currently. Which brings us back to Elvis Presley. There are people who change their appearance, their bodies, their gestures to act like the King of Rock ‘n Roll. They are called imitators. In his Elvis film, Luhrmann says, “Austin Butler didn’t do an impersonation. What he did was Austin Butler’s interpretation of the soul of Elvis Presley. An AI can impersonate, it cannot interpret.” As we say our goodbyes, I ask him what he would like to do, as a filmmaker, with AI. It turns out that he already incorporated it into his work: it was the technology he used to fade Butler’s face into Presley’s.