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  • Writer's pictureRowan Hirst

The UK’s AI Safety Summit: Meaningful handshakes or a geopolitical wrestle?

Toby Melville

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, hosted the AI Safety Summit on the 1st and 2nd of November at Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes. Those who watched Benedict Cumberbatch star in The Imitation Game may know this historic location was the base for the WW2 codebreakers. The summit welcomed civil society groups, academic experts, tech giants, and international governments. What Sunak termed a “landmark achievement”, was the signing of the Bletchley Declaration: an international agreement recognising the risks posed by AI. 28 countries backed the declaration, including the US and China.

In summary, the declaration was to urge “frontier” AI models, defined by the UK as “highly capable general-purpose AI models”, to be developed to a “trustworthy, human-centric and responsible” standard. Whilst the Bletchley Declaration garnered significant media attention, however, the spotlight of the summit shone most brightly on three attendees: China, Kamala Harris, and Elon Musk.

China’s Controversial Presence

Represented by their Vice Minister of Science and Technology Wu Zhaohui, China’s presence generated controversy amongst government ministers, given their status as a military threat and economic rival.

Toby Melville

Sunak defended the attendance of China, arguing “there can't really be a substantive conversation about AI without involving the world's leading AI nations”. Musk echoed the sentiment, describing the decision as “essential”. It seems the Government were perhaps even desperate for China’s attendance, with an anonymous UK official voicing uncertainty about their arrival: “The team were literally monitoring flights departing Beijing all Monday.”

Ironically, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden declared it was not appropriate for China to attend some sessions, on the account of wanting “like-minded countries working together”. These counter-intuitive messages could be read as the UK Government wanting to keep up appearances, specifically one of good diplomacy but with special respect to national security.

The US Asserts Dominance

US Vice President Kamala Harris scored a little lower on the diplomacy factor, however. On October 30th, two days before the summit, the White House unveiled an executive order on tackling AI risks. There, Harris proclaimed that “when it comes to AI, America is a global leader […] It is America that can catalyse global action and build consensus in a way that no other country can.”

As a fact, the US leads on AI development. The (in)famous ChatGPT is the invention of American company OpenAI, now partnered with tech giant Microsoft. On an academic level, over 70 per cent of the most cited AI research papers in the last three years were American. To top things off, they also had the highest private investment in AI by a significant margin.

Regardless, it’s hard not to view the actions of the US as asserting dominance on a political level. The announcement of the U.S. Artificial Intelligence Safety Institute (USAISI) landed on the 1st of November, a day before the formal introduction of the UK Government’s AI Safety Institute. It may be an understatement to call it ‘rubbing salt in the wound’.

Musk: The Star of the Show

Kirsty Wigglesworth

What the US didn’t have alongside its announcements however was a live-streamed interview with the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. To conclude the summit, Rishi Sunak probed Musk, gleaning answers he perhaps did not expect. Most notably, Musk claimed “there will come a point when no job is needed”, to which Sunak countered by saying he believes “work gives you meaning”.

Amongst other moments, Musk suggested robots in the future may become “real friends” but need a physical off switch. Furthermore, he even had a punt at suggesting policy, calling for a tax break for tech entrepreneurs in the UK. Sunak’s excitement over Musk’s presence was palpable during the interview, most clear in soundbites such as “you’re known for being such a brilliant innovator and technologist”.

A Lack of Substance

Naturally, the AI Safety Summit received a great dose of critique. Although the current Tory administration is never short of this, navigating the ethical minefield of AI development and its regulation only amplifies opportunities for criticism.

Bar the announcement of the AI Safety Institute, there were no real policy announcements. This can hardly be read as a surprise given Sunak’s speech the week before, in which he said, “the UK’s answer is not to rush to regulate […] this is a point of principle – we believe in innovation.”

Some criticised the lack of attention given to the high energy consumption of AI technology, a strong environmental concern. Others, such as the women’s charity Refuge, noted an absence of discussion on women’s safety, especially in the rise of fake AI-generated porn.

The Government also refused the attendance of some groups, such as the Trades Union Congress (TUC), attracting the image that they are uninterested in the impacts of AI on job security. Despite the Scottish Government’s request for a place at the summit, they were also not in attendance.

Other government decisions prior to the summit reinforce the suspicion that they are failing to tackle AI in a serious and balanced manner. In September, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) was disbanded and seemingly superseded by a Frontier AI Taskforce. A former member of the board, speaking to Recorded Future News under anonymity, posited that the new taskforce is “very focused on generative AI and longer-term national security issues they have yet to really define. Whereas the CDEI has been focusing very much on day-to-day existing uses of data analytics and machine learning”.

What Happens Now?

Toby Melville

Despite these criticisms, Sunak achieved not only an international declaration, but a new precedent; A second meeting will be hosted by South Korea in six months, followed by France in a year’s time.

Collectively, we are being plunged into the uncertainty of a future where AI poses new risks, some of which we can and cannot yet conceive. However, what the UK’s AI Safety Summit demonstrates is that world leaders are willing to come together and collaborate on how to navigate a brand-new regulatory challenge.


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