Avatar seeks agent
Jane Austen should fire her agent.
In her lifetime, Austen earned £684 from her books—perhaps $87,000 in today’s money.* That modest sum is dwarfed by the untold millions that assorted re-publishers, moviemakers, fanfiction writers, and action-figure producers have made from her works and image in the two centuries since, not a penny of which accrued to Austen or her estate.
And now one of the world’s biggest companies has turned her into an AI character—without, one must assume, so much as a by-your-leave, let alone a licensing fee.
Yesterday, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, unveiled a new suite of AI-enhanced tools that will soon be integrated into the company’s many products. Among those tools: AI-powered chatbots designed to look and talk like real people. Among those real people: Jane Austen. Also: famous athletes (Tom Brady, Naomi Osaka); famous artists (Snoop Dogg); famous social-media influencers (MrBeast, Charli D’Amelio); and famous people who are famous for being famous (Paris Hilton, Kendall Jenner).
The New York Times reports that the chatbots based on these people, or at least designed to look like them, will be available to answer questions, provide entertainment, and shoot the breeze, all in character. These interactions will allegedly take place in the context of online conversations among real people, but it’s easy to imagine a (dystopian) future in which we cut out the middlemen and talk only to the AI.
As a demonstration of the new product, the Times chatted with the AI version of Austen. Did the reporters ask her how she felt about fronting for a technology that may destroy her fellow writers’ livelihoods? Did they ask if she plans to join the Authors Guild’s class-action lawsuit against OpenAI, the company that appropriated published works, without compensation, to train its groundbreaking chatbot?** Of course not: They asked her about marriage and Mr. Darcy.
Typical! Everyone thinks Jane Austen is all about romance, when she’s really all—well, partly—about money! And while the Times reports that “the celebrities and athletes are being paid for their AI characters,” the newspaper says nothing about whether a certain well-known nineteenth-century author is being paid for hers. I think we all know the answer to that question: Nope.
Like I said—Jane, fire your agent.
** I’m told that my own book Among the Janeites was included in the database. I can’t check for sure, though, because the information is behind the Atlantic’s paywall. I guess I could have afforded a subscription if OpenAI had only paid to use my work.