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Former Tech Secretary Hopes AI Safety Summit Sparks "National Conversation" On Regulation

Chloe Smith is the Conservative MP for Norwich North (Alamy)

5 min read

Former secretary of state Chloe Smith has said that after this week’s AI Safety Summit, a “national conversation” will be needed to ensure UK regulators have the ability to respond to the huge risks presented by AI.

As the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation & Technology between April and July this year while Michelle Donelan was on maternity leave, Smith oversaw the beginning stages of preparations for the AI Safety Summit, which was announced in August.

The summit, taking place at the historic Bletchley Park estate on 1-2 November this week, will focus on discussing and understanding the global risks associated with frontier AI, with foreign delegates and top tech firms invited to engage with the UK government.

On Thursday morning, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for an AI Safety Institute in the UK to research and test new types of AI to explore the risks such as bias, misinformation and more extreme dangers to society.

The next step, Smith argued, will be for there to be a “national conversation” around where capability is to tackle such risks and potential harms. 

“There must be a very high grade of collaboration between public and private sectors to be able to get all of this right,” Smith told PoliticsHome.

“And also, I think there has to be sensible conversations at a national level about where capability is, and where sovereign capability or indeed resources are.”

Smith said that MPs will be continuing to look at the next steps in relation to the government’s white paper on AI, which proposed that existing regulators be used to govern the threats presented by AI.

However, after the white paper was published, experts have warned that a patchwork of regulators may struggle to oversee AI effectively across different sectors, as the extent of their powers ranges massively.  

“There'll be a lot more that we'll be continuing to look at in Parliament,” Smith confirmed. 

“We'll be looking at the next steps of the white paper. Parliament will want to support those regulators to be able to do that big job, and will want to be able to share in their work in the months to come.”

Bletchley Park
The AI Safety Summit will be held at Bletchley Park (Alamy)

Smith said she expected Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan to share “more details” on how the government would help regulators in the coming months. 

Donelan has said that she hopes the summit will be the “first of many” going forward. With only top technology firms invited to this one, smaller firms and civil society organisations have complained that the opportunity to influence government policy on AI has been left only to big tech. 

Asked whether she believes there is room for more government-organised events that would focus on diversifying the range of voices in the space, Smith replied: “Yes, I hope so.”

But actually, I would underline that it needn't be government organised,” she continued.

“This is a wide-ranging debate in which the government and the private sector and voices throughout society all have a contribution to make.Whether we are a country, whether we are a company, whether we are just an individual user, we all have a stake in this.”

Smith highlighted the independent-organised AI Fringe events that are running next week to coincide with the government’s summit

“That allows this to be a really inclusive debate, which I think is what's needed, and I certainly hope that that continues, continues on that basis,” she said.

“But I also think there'll be a lot more that we will be looking closely at in Parliament.”

Some Labour shadow ministers have also expressed discontentment with how they believe the government has kept them “in the dark” on plans for the summit.  

Shadow Minister Alex Davies-Jones told PoliticsHome that Labour was having to get updates from stakeholders within academia and the tech sector rather than from government.

“So very little is being shared from it, which has been a problem, because how do we know if this summit is even fit for purpose, we're not getting any information on it,” she said.

Smith agreed that there should be a “cross-party consensus” to understand and mitigate the risks presented by AI, but argued the opportunity for parliamentarians to get involved and engaged is “absolutely open and available”.

“In terms of the work that is still to go on in Parliament, looking at the next steps on the white paper and supporting the regulatory approach, this will be a success if it's done in the national interest,” she said.

“And I think there is ample opportunity for political parties to come together to make sure that we achieve them.”

Responding to concerns from the tech sector that the conference could be a “damp squib” if foreign delegates decide not to show up, Smith insisted that there is a “gap” for the UK to fill in terms of looking at “safety at the frontier” and that the UK can play a leadership role due to its “particular position of strength in technology”.

“We and the US and China are the top three in this field, and indeed more broadly in other technology matters as well,” she said.

“So we have a trusted position from which we can convene people.”

Smith, alongside a number of other politicians, will be speaking at multiple fringe events next week.

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