Renowned British documentarian Louis Theroux, who has been a staple on U.K. TV and radio for more than two decades, used the flagship address of the 2023 Edinburgh TV Festival to speak about concerns over artificial intelligence in the industry, claiming that he found the new world — one where there were “valid concerns” from writers about “robots cannibalizing their creativity” — both “troubling and exciting in roughly equal measure.”
As the giver of the 2023 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture — which sees Theroux join a prestigious lineup of former lecturers including Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Michaela Coel and Armando Iannucci — he said that the changing times and raised stakes, where “the manosphere, the conspiracy community, the far-right have real power,” meant that the TV world needed to be “on our mettle to report responsibly.
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“But those raised stakes also show how important it is that we do report it, not hide from it or to report it in a way that feels po-faced or which lacks nuance or which lacks the confidence to understand its subjects, rather than simply to deplore them in exposés so heavy-handed and clumsy that they end up undermining themselves,” he said.
Theroux added that — in his more than 20 years in the industry, which has seen the old media landscape give way to the “de-hierarchized media world we now inhabit where a racist with an internet connection can compete with CNN’s streaming service” — his “guiding light” had always been his own sense of curiosity and fear.
“Worry and fear are part of the process. If I feel queasy approaching a subject, I remind myself it’s a sign I’m doing work that is risky, weighted with difficult moral questions, and that I’m approaching them with a sense of responsibility. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway is the meaning of taking risks.”
And it was this, he claimed, that muted his fears of an AI takeover, at least in his domain of documentaries.
“I say this not as an expert on AI, but as an expert on humans. We’ve all seen the amazing results AI can produce. In a few years, it may be able to write a passable sitcom or action movie. Or a MacTaggart. Maybe an excellent one,” he said. “But what it won’t be able to do is take risks. Because risk involves danger. And there’s no danger for machines. Risk involves real feeling. The possibility of humiliation, embarrassment, failure.”
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