Key Players Remain Unconvinced About The Government’s AI Safety Summit
Rishi Sunak gave a speech on the dangers posed by AI last week (Alamy)
Figures across the technology and political landscape are still having doubts over whether the landmark AI Safety Summit, kicking off this week at Bletchley Park, has the right focus to steer the development of artificial intelligence in the UK and the rest of the world.
The summit will host delegates from countries from around the world, as well as top tech firms and civil society organisations, with the aim of discussing and understanding the risks posed by frontier AI.
With AI encompassing everything from science and industry to health, education and foreign affairs, it has been a particularly complex area for the UK government to approach in the form of an international summit. Every player involved, from government figures and MPs to business, academia and the charity sector, all have their own ideas of how they want the future of the technology to be shaped and controlled.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave a speech last week outlining some of the most serious risks posed by artificial intelligence to humanity, such as the development of bioweapons, rising unemployment and poverty, and societal unrest. The summit will aim to “pull together” research on such risks and bring international figures together to discuss how to better understand them going forward.
‘Frontier’ risks were identified as a knowledge gap that the UK could fill on the international stage, as the EU and the US have already started to shape what regulation of the industry might look like.
However, despite the summit being billed as a potential “legacy” for the Prime Minister, who is personally fascinated by the topic, many experts and industry figures remain unconvinced that the summit will have the teeth to implement any new sense of policy direction.
With the summit due to begin on Wednesday, here are the key areas of concern voiced by key players across the policy landscape:
Narrow focus on frontier risks
A new report by Global Counsel, a public affairs advisory firm that provides advice to businesses and government agencies, has found that political, business and academic figures in the UK and elsewhere were highly critical of the UK government’s focus on frontier AI and existential risk above addressing near term risks, such as bias or misinformation.
“Expert opinion formers were sceptical about an international regulatory system due to divergences between the US and the EU, and poured cold water on the idea of a global regulator,” the report added.
Chair of the Science, Technology and Innovation Select Committee Greg Clark agreed, telling PoliticsHome that he is concerned that a focus on global frontier risks should not detract from domestic issues such as bias and misinformation.
He called for the government to conduct and publish “gaps analysis” to identify where the current regulatory landscape is not sufficient to deal with emerging threats by AI, a move which he argued will be needed in response to the government’s AI white paper that was published earlier this year.
Michael Birtwhistle, Associate Director at the Ada Lovelace Institute, described the summit as being originally “pretty narrowly defined” but has now slightly widened its scope to include issues such as misinformation.
“Over the summer, as the government got feedback on its proposal for the summit that was very much about existential risk and biosecurity, and now we're seeing that extend out into other forms of risks, for example misinformation on the scale that it might impact on democratic institutions or norms,” he said.
Birtwhistle added that he saw the summit as a “major international opportunity to seek consensus and a global view of what AI governance should look like” but said it was largely focused on “models that don't exist yet and capabilities that those models don't yet have”.
Referring to international collaboration and a domestic policy agenda, he said he wanted to see a “statement of intent and a recognition that you can't have one without the other”.
A new report by think tank IPPR also said that “deep global cooperation” needed to be built on “strong national supervision of AI risks”.
Calling on the government to set out a “bold strategy” for AI, the think tank warned of the potential over-reliance on self-regulation which could put “unwarranted trust in powerful corporations to ‘mark their own homework’ and risks runaway market dominance”.
“Just as governments failed to overhaul financial regulation until after the 2008 crisis, and are only belatedly responding to the challenges of the social media revolution, so they now risk being too slow and unambitious in planning how to get the most from AI while better managing the risks,” the report said.
Digital rights campaigners are also concerned that the summit’s “limited scope” has made it a “bungled” opportunity.
Open Rights Group Policy Manager for Data Rights and Privacy Abby Burke said: “The agenda’s focus on future, apocalyptic risks belies the fact that government bodies and institutions in the UK are already deploying AI and automated decision-making in ways that are exposing citizens to error and bias on a massive scale.
“It’s extremely concerning that the government has excluded those who are experiencing harms and other critical expert and activist voices from its Summit, allowing businesses who create and profit from AI systems to set the UK’s agenda.”
Limited voices at the table
In July, shadow minister Alex Davies-Jones warned against allowing big tech firms to dictate government policy on AI, saying she was worried “it's just going to be the big players dictating what the regulations should be within their favour; not what's best for the public, not what's best for society at large”.
These concerns are still largely felt by many MPs and organisations representing workers and researchers. The chief executives of top AI companies OpenAI, Google, Deepmind, and Anthropic, are understood to be attending the summit, but the attendance is limited to only top tech firms and not including medium or smaller organisations, with only very limited attendance by civil society and charities.
In a surprise announcement, Sunak will host an "in conversation" event with controversial X owner Elon Musk following the summit on Thursday, with Musk confirmed to be attending either in person or virtually.
More than 100 civil society organisations from across the UK and world signed an open letter to Sunak on Monday branding the AI Summit as “a missed opportunity”. The letter, coordinated by Connected by Data, the TUC and Open Rights Group, said it was unacceptable that the summit had been dominated by “narrow interests”.
“AI must be shaped in the interests of the wider public,” Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer for Connected by Data Adam Cantwell-Corn said.
“This means ensuring that a range of expertise, perspectives and communities have an equal seat at the table. The Summit demonstrates a failure to do this.
“Beyond the Summit, AI policy making needs a re-think – domestically and internationally – to steer these transformative technologies in a democratic and socially useful direction.”
Trade unions have also got involved in the letter to argue that workers, whose jobs could be put at risk by the emerging technology, have been excluded from shaping the narrative.
TUC Assistant General Secretary Kate Bell said: “It is hugely disappointing that unions and wider civil society have been denied proper representation at this Summit.
“AI is already making life-changing decisions – like how we work, how we’re hired and who gets fired. But working people have yet to be given a seat at the table.
“This event was an opportunity to bring together a wide range of voices to discuss how we deal with immediate threats and make sure AI benefits all. It shouldn’t just be tech bros and politicians who get to shape the future of AI.”
Meanwhile, Labour figures have also accused the government of keeping them “in the dark” about plans for the summit, arguing that there should be a “cross-party consensus” on issues relating to the future of humanity.
China on the invite list
Among those who are invited, however, include China, a move which has been controversial among some hawkish Conservative MPs who have accused the UK government of “failing to think long term” about threats posed by China.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, a leading figure in this group, told PoliticsHome that he saw China being invited to the summit as another example of where the UK was refusing to recognise the growing “threat” the country posed.
“In a way I can understand the government's desire to try and bring everybody together to try and set some rules,” he said.
“But I have a problem with China being there because we know China is a malign actor and is now a world leader in technology for AI… the West have woken up quite late to what China has been doing.”
Adding that the UK had become “completely dependent” on China, Duncan Smith said the government should now focus on building resilience in its own economy and skills capability.
“[China] is more than an ‘epoch-defining challenge’. They are a bloody threat,” he said.
“If the UK doesn't recognise that, we will be left behind on this and this will be used by malignant actors, like China, Iran, and others. All the authoritarian states are working like mad on AI and genomics, and aided and abetted by China.”
Speaking to reporters last week, an EU official said it was the UK’s prerogative to invite “whomever they want”.
“There is maybe some reservation as to the ability to have a very deep conversation with the country that comes from a very, very different perspective on this technology,” they said, describing how China’s approach was fundamentally different to that of the Western world’s.
According to The Times, there is now also tension over whether Israel should have been invited to the summit, with Foreign Office officials suggesting that having Benjamin Netanyahu attend via video link would distract from the summit's aims. Ministers reportedly rejected the suggestion.
Not just a talking shop
US Vice President Kamala Harris, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni are all expected to attend the summit, but French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz will not be attending – with Scholz displeased with the fact that Sunak has not visited Germany since becoming Prime Minister.
Davies-Jones told PoliticsHome that tech sector contacts had told her they expect that attendance to the summit could be “patchy” and that many were concerned the event was going to be a “damp squib”.
Multiple Conservative MPs have also told PoliticsHome they are concerned about the level of influence the summit will have – and indeed, whether top delegates from invited countries will even show up. One senior Conservative MP said that while they thought the summit was a “great idea”, they were somewhat sceptical just how much impact it was going to have.
As the summit comes after the G7 Hiroshima summit held in May this year, EU officials have said that they view it as merely “complementary” to ongoing global discussions.
“The summit in the UK is an event which is complementing a lot of discussions that are ongoing at the international level, and it brings new discussion to the table because it brings in new countries,” an official said in a briefing with reporters last week.
They added that they were supportive of the idea of an AI Safety Institute, a plan announced by the government last week to set up a body to test new types of AI and explore all the risks present.
“We are supportive of this idea of the United Kingdom; We already have four of these facilities in the European Union, they are dedicated to some specific sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and food, healthcare and smart cities,” they said.
“What we will also need is to develop tools for evaluating these very advanced models, and it's a good idea to do it collectively, together, because the reach of these models goes beyond our borders.”
An EU official added that they felt AI was a “bit of a crowded space at the moment” on the international stage.
“We thought that with the G7 process, we were well covered, and maybe we would not have needed such a conference as the one seen now in the UK… but here we go and I think: why not?”
Next steps after the summit
MPs across Parliament, and the technology secretary herself are eager for the summit to not just act as a “talking shop” but to follow through with real impact and shape future conversations.
At Conservative conference, influential backbench Tory MP Alicia Kearns told a fringe event that the UK needed to show it was a “serious player”.
“So let's decide on how much we are going to stand up, let’s not just hold an AI summit and then not actually follow through, because that's the worst thing we can do,” she said.
Former tech secretary Chloe Smith told PoliticsHome that after the summit, she wanted to see a “national conversation” around where capabilities are for regulators to mitigate the many risks presented by the technologies.
Other MPs, such as Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, think there will be other sectors which interact with AI that the UK should be wary of ignoring, including the threat of hostile states using the genomics sector to undermine UK security.
Those representing the tech sector will also be keen for the government to focus on harnessing the present and future benefits of AI.
A recent report by TechUK outlined how the benefits of AI could be huge for productivity growth and the jobs market, stating that the government needed to do more to help businesses achieve this, stating that “the use of AI is more prevalent in some sectors and regions than others”.
“The UK is a world leader in AI and is ranked highly in ‘AI readiness’. The potential benefits in terms of productivity growth are huge,” the report said.
“But we must ensure that all parts of society and all parts of the country are able to prosper in this new AI-enabled world.”
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