As the birthplace of modern computing, Bletchley Park is no stranger to technological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the summit it played host to this week marked a world first. A passion project of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, this week’s AI Safety Summit saw the UK host an assortment of politicians, business leaders, and academics to discuss the risks and opportunities of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Headlines in the days leading up to the summit focused on missing world leaders, but with leaders from the EU, the UN, and Vice President Kamala Harris in attendance, the summit was soon underway. By then, the news coverage had been gripped by another attendee – the notoriously unpredictable Elon Musk, who argued that AI could pose an existential risk if it becomes “anti-human” before he arrived at the summit.
Even so, the AI Safety Summit represented a rare occasion where Sunak could present the UK as a genuine leader on the world stage. Against the backdrop of our thriving tech sector, he had the potential to position himself and the UK as a leading voice to global and national audiences.
The gathering has produced the Bletchley Declaration – with 28 countries and the EU affirming the potential of AI, while noting the potentially “catastrophic” risks associated with the technology. As Sunak himself noted, securing agreement from an international cohort of signatories, including China and the USA, marked a diplomatic coup for the UK, and for the Prime Minister personally.
The week also saw the UK unveil its new AI Safety Institute, with early access to the AI companies’ models. Although, this announcement was set against the US’s announcement of a similar institute, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ assertion that “when it comes to AI, America is a global leader”. The twin announcements reflect Sunak’s success in bringing global focus on AI, but also underscore the challenge in ensuring the UK leads the way in the face of global superpowers like the US.
However, with the focus heavily on regulating the technology, and headlines emphasising either the apocalyptic risks of AI, or Musk’s presence, Sunak may yet come to rue this summit as a missed opportunity to cement the UK’s place as a trailblazer in successfully integrating AI, and showcase British success stories. In his friendly interview with Elon Musk, and conversations throughout the week, a focus on AI safety displaced discussions of its transformative potential as a solution to challenges facing the UK.
Already, the Labour Party are considering how AI can support Starmer’s Five Missions. Speaking to the Young Fabians in October, Shadow Minister for Tech and Digital Economy Alex Davies-Jones suggested that the adoption of AI in public services could be transformative, but has been hindered by a lack of political focus. In contrast to the strong emphasis on dangers of AI that has characterised much of this week’s summit, this was an approach which recognised the transformational opportunities presented by AI for the British economy.
While the Government’s proactive focus on AI is both timely and welcome, it remains an issue that will only grow in salience in the coming years. If the Prime Minister wishes to capture the imagination of the British public, he may need to ensure he tells a more compelling story of how AI can be a tool for positive, transformational change.
Nevertheless, while this summit may have marked a world first, it most definitely will not be the last. Already, South Korea and France are expected to be the next countries to host the event, and build on the progress made so far. As Rishi Sunak continues to look for ways to turn the polls around ahead of the predicted General Election next year, he will doubtless hope that this summit could well be a key part of the legacy he leaves behind.