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AI Experts Find Rishi Sunak And Elon Musk Interview "Depressing"

Elon Musk is sitting down with Rishi Sunak on Thursday after the AI Safety Summit (Alamy)

8 min read

AI experts have condemned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to host an ‘in conversation’ event with X owner Elon Musk as “undemocratic” and “depressing”.

The government’s landmark AI Safety Summit is taking place on Wednesday and Thursday at Bletchley Park, hosting delegates from countries, top tech firms and civil society organisations from around the world to discuss the risks posed by frontier AI.  

Little information has been shared on what Sunak and Musk will discuss, and it is unclear whether Musk will be attending it, and the rest of the summit, in person or virtually. 

Announcing the conversation earlier this week, Sunak posted a video on X showing the ‘10’ on Downing Street's famous door morphing into the X logo. 

“We know technology influences the government, but to put it on your door? I actually thought it was a joke,” said Tania Duarte, the co-founder of We and AI, a non-profit organisation which aims to raise awareness of AI and promote AI literacy. 

“We’re giving up the seat of democracy and giving it to a private firm; a platform that has unpicked a lot of what democracy is about.”

Shortly after taking over the platform – when it was called Twitter – in autumn last year, Musk fired hundreds of workers who were responsible for content moderation of the platform. In the year since, he has made a series of changes to the platform, including allowing any users to pay for blue tick verifications and removing ticks from legacy verified accounts, making it more difficult to determine whether accounts were impersonations of real public figures. 

A European Commission study this year found that X has the highest ratio of disinformation posts among the large social media platforms, and the Commission issued a warning to Musk specifically about the high volume of false information relating to the Israel-Hamas conflict on the platform.

“I think if we look at some of the things that are going on at Twitter/X thinking ‘this is what we're aspiring to’, it's deeply depressing,” Duarte told PoliticsHome.

“Someone at the AI and society forum yesterday said that they might as well be having the summit in a prison because they're just already discussing the crimes that they're going to commit.”

Duarte also criticised the culture around elevating "tech godfathers" such as Musk.

“We have this feeling that we have is to position these powerful, successful, usually white, but definitely privileged, educated men and hold up their expertise,” she said.

“This is fueled by media interest, I'd love to get beyond ever using the term ‘godfathers’, it's so intrinsically unhelpful in so many ways and doesn't really give credit to all the other work going into AI.”

She also argued that Musk had failed to ensure the safety of his other AI-related product, Tesla.

“The area of AI that [Musk] has been most involved in is autonomous vehicles has been continuously delayed, he's constantly been pushing back,” she continued.

“So in actual fact, you are bringing in someone that has failed from the technology side, creating a technology that is not safe. And yet he's the person that we’re turning to for safety.”

A new poll carried out by Savanta for PoliticsHome has found that 55 per cent of the British public think large technology companies have too much influence over the policy development of AI.

Rich Wilson, a co-founder of Global Assembly, a global citizens' assembly set up in 2021 to convene people to discuss issues facing the world, told PoliticsHome that countries “face a choice” over who they would like to have the power over AI going forwards. 

“In my opinion, we are living through the biggest backsliding in democracy we've ever seen, this is the reality right now. In my opinion, we face a choice,” he said.

“In either crisis we face, climate or AI, we're going to either have draconian responses, or we're going to have democratic responses.

“I'm really hoping we can have more democratic responses. If you're happy with more Draconian choices, if you trust Elon and Rishi to make decisions for you, then by all means, but I really don't.”

Professor of Science and Technology Policy at UCL and policy co-lead for the research programme Responsible AI, Jack Stilgoe, also said he believed the government’s approach needed to be more “democratic”.

Referring to the planned conversation between Sunak and Musk, he said: “I think it reveals something that a few of us have suspected about the AI Summit, which is that the government might be more interested in being seen to be involved in playing this game than they are in actually asking the questions that matter to people or working out what those questions are. 

“If you were genuinely interested in serious policymaking, I think he would have invited different people.”

However, Stilgoe conceded that the government had started to recognise the importance of involving civil society.

On Tuesday, the government published the list of the confirmed attendees to the summit, which will include delegates from 27 countries, and representatives from 40 top tech industry organisations and 46 academic and civil society organisations.

“I think there has been some listening: the timescale of the summit was always going to be really ambitious, which means having to draw up the agenda, draw up invitees really quickly,” he continued. 

“They have listened to early concerns that it was representing a very narrow range of interests and was being framed by industry questions.”

Michelle Donelan and delegates at summit
Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan greeted foreign delegates at the summit on Wednesday (Alamy)

Daniel Stone, executive director of Diffusion.Au, an international PR agency, agreed that Musk was a strange choice for Sunak to share a platform with, and suggested it was indicative of the tone of the summit. 

“The fact that it's such a niche elite event, I can't imagine that anyone in the broader public would think it's anything other than a kind of cabal of people who aren’t acting in your interests,” he said.

But he added that there is also public doubt over how trustworthy a number of the other top firms are, including Meta. 

“Zuckerberg also is not massively trusted, even though what they're doing with AI is different to everyone else, I don't think the normal public understand that,” he said.

“And then in this country they see Clegg as being Meta’s primary advocate, which also I don't think instils confidence.”

Despite the controversy surrounding it, both Tory and Labour MPs have said it is important for the UK government to engage with Musk.

One Conservative backbench MP told PoliticsHome they thought the decision with Musk was “the same as the China debate”: “The only thing worse that talking to him is not talking to him.”

A Labour shadow minister used the same analogy, saying “you can’t not engage with him given the power and influence he has in this field”.

However, they continued: “But a Q&A for the purposes of merely plugging his own platform and promoting the PM for his future job post election on the west coast is sycophantic and desperate.

“It won’t help the country or create a safer environment for AI.”

A number of attendees at an AI Fringe event at the British Library on Wednesday also speculated that the Prime Minister was trying to raise his own profile and personal legacy, with a potential future job in technology in mind after leaving politics.

“Cynically, I think he’s lining himself up with the tech bros for when he loses the next election,” one attendee said.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Sunak said it was "great" that Musk was joining the summit along with other major CEOs.

"Elon Musk for a long time has both been an investor and developer of AI technologies himself," the prime minister said.

"But for over a decade, he's been also talking about the potential risks that they pose and the need for countries and companies to work together to manage and mitigate against those risks. So he's someone who’s got something that can be valuable to the conversation.

"So it was great that he's decided to join us, as well as other major CEOs, he's not the only one that's here. We've got representatives from all the major AI companies here at the summit and that's crucial, because countries will need to work together with the companies that are developing the technology."

Sunak added that "many of those CEOs" were calling for government to be involved in shaping the future of AI.

X was contacted for comment, but sent back an automated response: "Busy now, please check back later."

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