James Kotecki (00:07): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you a C Space Studio interview from CES 2024 with one of my favorite guests, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, is the national executive director and chief negotiator of SAG-AFTRA. That's the actor's union, whose recent strike put a spotlight on the role of AI in creative work. I think you're really going to enjoy this conversation. And after you do, make sure you check out the SAG-AFTRA Podcast, hosted by none other than Duncan Crabtree-Ireland himself. 


As you're about to hear, Duncan is thoughtful and passionate about how AI and other technology impacts arts, and commerce, and humanity. So listen here, listen there, listen up. It's Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. 


Welcome back to the C Space Studio here at CES 2024. I am James Kotecki, joined by one of my favorite guests. We've talked so many times over the years at CES, and we're glad to have you back. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the national executive director and chief negotiator of SAG-AFTRA. Thank you so much for coming back. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:08): 

Hey, thanks so much for having me. It's great to see you, as always. 

James Kotecki (01:10): 

Wow. Well, since we chatted last year, SAG-AFTRA has had quite a year. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:14): 


James Kotecki (01:14): 

You are the union that represents, among other folks, actors, and these actors went on strike last year. I believe it was about four months, right? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:22): 

Yes. So you might've heard of it. 

James Kotecki (01:22): 


Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:23): 

Oh, yeah. 

James Kotecki (01:25): 

Yeah, I was like, "I know that guy." And you were all over the news, obviously. Now you're back. AI was a big factor in that strike. So I want to start by just contextualizing for folks what AI protection... What the issues were, what the protections that were won as a result of that strike. Can you give us a status update? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:43): 

Yeah, sure. And let me just say, James, CES helped us identify AI as the issue was going to become and helped us do it years before we actually had to launch into this negotiation. 

James Kotecki (01:53): 

That's right. You and I have talked about issues like this for years, and I was like, "Oh, I know why he's concerned about that." 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (01:58): 

Yeah, we really haven't. And so, last year, at CES, we had a panel track up called Future Shock, and it was all about AI and its impact on the entertainment industry. Little did we know that within months of that, we would end up actually having to go on strike in order to make sure that the protections that our members need would be enshrined in the contract with the major studios and the streamers. But those protections really revolve around what we call informed consent and fair compensation. And what that really means is that when an actor is going to have their image, voice likeness, or performance replicated using AI technology, or really any technology, that they should have the right to know what that's going to be. And that consent can't just be some boilerplate sentence. It has to mean, "We know what you're going to do with our image. We are okay with that. We're giving you permission to recreate us in that way." And then that people need to be paid fairly for doing that. 

James Kotecki (02:47): 

And so, if I were to preserve a performance and then use it a few years later in a different context, I need to go back to that person and get consent again for that different kind of uses. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (02:55): 

Yeah. But we're even talking about not just the performance. We're talking about these companies are creating a digital replica of a person. And so they can create an entirely different performance that you never gave. And there's a de facto consent when you're an actor on a set, because if you're being asked to say something, you know you're saying it. And you can say, "I'm not going to say that," or, "I'm not going to do that." But if they've got a replica of you and they can make it do whatever they want, then that has to be protected contractually and legally because you're not there to protect it yourself. 

James Kotecki (03:23): 

And how much of this was about protecting the future, and how much of this is about things that are actually happening right now? Your actors are back at work. Are they seeing these kinds of things already bubbling up? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (03:32): 

Oh, absolutely. For the actors in particular, this is something that's already happening. I mean, there's some high-profile examples. Obviously, Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars movies, Paul Walker Fast and Furious, and other examples too. But many of our members have been scanned to create the kind of data that's necessary to create a convincing digital replica. And so this is something that our members felt had to be dealt with right now. It could not wait, because this is happening today, not tomorrow. 

James Kotecki (04:00): 

You are a negotiator. If I could ask you to maybe not take the opposite side, but at least give me the opposite perspective, what were the studios saying about AI? Were they kind of dismissive of it? This isn't that big of a deal. How were they thinking about it in this conversation? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (04:17): 

Well, I think that they were not quite ready for this, to be honest with you. And some of them are using this technology already, some of them aren't. They're not all in the same place. And so I think they weren't quite ready for how important this issue was to us. That became immediately apparent. We started negotiations. This was one of our very first proposals on the first day of bargaining. And it was the very last proposal that was finalized on day 118 of our strike. And so I think the reality is the companies were concerned about locking themselves into something they didn't fully understand or anticipate. And they're also concerned about competition coming from companies that are outside of the entertainment industry, companies like OpenAI or companies like even Google. And they're concerned about limiting themselves too much in a potential future competition with those companies. 

James Kotecki (05:04): 

And so let's talk about that a little bit more because, obviously, you've made a deal with the studios. But in a world where companies in the United States, beyond the borders of the United States, anywhere around the world, could be theoretically, as we've talked over the years, very easily and increasingly easily because of the way that technology is advancing, create digital replicas, create digital copies with or without consent, how do you approach that world and your positioning within it, given that you've made a very important breakthrough deal with these folks, but there's other people who are going to be maybe trying to do some of the things you're trying to prevent? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (05:35): 

Absolutely. I mean, it's a two-step process, right? There's collective bargaining, and our members... I mean, I think you could see from how they turned out for the picket lines and the 98% of strike a vote, our members aren't going to work for companies that don't have acceptable, ethical, respectful deals signed. So then the issue becomes, what about companies that are doing things without consent? And that's where the public policy side comes in. And we have a bill currently pending in Congress called the No Fakes Act, which is going to establish a right for performers and all of us, actually, in our name image likeness, so that when companies try to steal our image, steal our performance, steal our face, steal our voice, we have a enforceable legal right under federal law that we can use to prevent that. So it's kind of a mosaic that has to be put together to make sure that everyone's protected. 

James Kotecki (06:23): 

And right now, is there any law that would protect such a thing if it were to happen today? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (06:27): 

There's law on state at some states, about half of the states have what are called rise of publicity laws that protect against commercial misappropriation of your image and likeness, but there is no federal law. And clearly, with something like this, we need federal law, and frankly, ultimately, we need international norms too. 

James Kotecki (06:41): 

Yeah. How do you think about... I guess one of the answers is you came to CES. But how do you think about the strike? Is a three-year authorization coming out of the strike a three-year deal? Is that right? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (06:51): 

Well, it was actually about a 2 1/2-year deal because of the strike itself, so yeah. 

James Kotecki (06:55): 

So in another 2 1/2 years, you might have to go back to the negotiating table again. Technology just keeps advancing, right? And so how did you put in place this framework for, like, all right, we kind of know what AI is doing now, but we have to be ready for things that we aren't even necessarily sure are going to happen in 2 or 2 1/2 years? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (07:09): 

Yeah. I mean, we know what's going to be evolutionary. In fact, just this morning, we announced here at CES a deal with a company called Replica Studios, which creates digital voice replicas for use by video game companies. And so we announced just a groundbreaking deal with them. Their CEO is here with me this morning, signing the deal and announcing it. And that's all about providing even the next level, the next evolution of protection for actors working in voice work for video games. And that includes things like transparency, that includes things like time limitations on the use of replicas, all kinds of other pieces. So the reality is, when you are in the business of collective bargaining, it is always something that you evolve over cycles of negotiation and will... One of the things I'm really proud of in our deal with the studios and streamers is we have a right to meet with them every six months to find out what they're doing in AI in general and specifically with generative AI. So we'll have that information for our next round of bargaining, which will be here sooner than we know it. 

James Kotecki (08:02): 

Given those meetings, I'm not sure if the first of those meetings has happened yet, but is there anything interesting that you want to highlight, either from something you're worried about or just something that's cool that studios are able to do with Generative AI right now? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (08:12): 

Well, the first of those meeting won't be until June of this year, 2024. So I don't really have anything to say about what's come up in those meetings yet. But I will say that we had really, really deep conversations with the studios as part of this negotiation. And I feel like there is a higher degree of understanding about the concerns that actors have. And I think there's going to be a recognition that people are going to stand up for themselves. No one is going to let themselves be walked over in this new world of AI. And as a union, we're here to bring people together to accomplish that. 

James Kotecki (08:45): 

And speaking of the union, you mentioned video games, and I believe there's a strike authorization. So for video game, performers aren't on strike now. They potentially could be on strike soon. Any update there? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (08:55): 

Yeah, I mean, we're still talking with the major video game companies, the video game studios. This replica deal that we announced this morning hopefully will help give them a road path, like a roadmap to how we can get to a deal with them. They know what it is we need done. They just haven't been willing to do it yet. If that is not done in short order, then it is quite possible we could be on strike against the video game companies in the course of the next four to eight weeks. 

James Kotecki (09:17): 

All right. Your work is never done. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (09:19): 

Never done. 

James Kotecki (09:21): 

Beyond AI, and it's almost silly to say beyond AI because AI is just kind of infusing everything here at CES. But since we're at CES, are there any other kind of technologies that you have your eye on here? 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (09:31): 

Absolutely. I mean, I think VR is finally poised to sort of come into its own. Obviously, really excited to see the Apple Vision Pro be released getting a chance to actually try out the Meta Quest 3 right here at CES this time. And I think with these advances in technology, especially if the price points become more feasible for the mass marketplace, it could finally be sort of taking its place. And that's really important to our members because VR becomes a whole new platform for the possible use of an exploitation of digital replicas, for example, but also just opportunities to expand upon their work. 

James Kotecki (10:09): 

One thing I have always found interesting about our conversations is that although, on some level may seem to deal with the concerns of Hollywood actors, actually, it's kind of like a canary in the coal mine situation, or the experiences and the concerns that you have could impact a lot of other people in a lot of other different workplaces and professions. And so, as a union that just went on strike about issues of AI in the workplace, generally, do you have any closing advice or thoughts to other people who are just wrestling with these concerns, either as employers, employees, concerned citizens about AI employment and the future of humanity? I'm putting a lot of pressure on you with this question. I just keep stacking up the pressure. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (10:45): 

Yeah, it's a great question. I take a chance to just say no. We have our labor innovation and technology summit that we do with the AFL-CIO every year. It's our fifth year doing it this year, and we have hundreds of union delegates from all across the country here for that exact purpose. But what I would say to employers is, if you take an ethical and responsible approach to your implementation and adoption of AI, that is a path to success. You can see what will happen when companies ignore the human impact of technological adaptation, and especially things like AI. What comes of that is the kind of thing we just experienced with this massive disruption of the entertainment industry for six months between the Writers Guild and us. So that didn't have to happen. And if companies step forward and partner with workers to help envision a future where people are lifted up and where AI serves us and we don't serve AI, I think there's a really bright future there. 

James Kotecki (11:38): 

A great optimistic note to end us on. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA. Thanks so much for coming back as always- 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (11:38): 

Thanks, James. 

James Kotecki (11:43): 

... and we look forward to talking to you again. 

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (11:44): 


James Kotecki (11:45): 

Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation from CES 2024. And if that struck a chord, make sure to check out the SAG-AFTRA Podcast on all the usual podcast channels. That's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. So hit that YouTube subscribe button, leave a comment, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartMedia, or wherever you're getting this show, and get more CES at ces.tech. That's C-E-S.T-E-C-H. I'm James Kotecki talking tech on CES Tech Talk.