UK's AI summit: China and US to set out safety stall

Two-day Bletchley Park event will feature leading voices from the China and US technology sectors in the same room

Bletchley Park will this week host the UK's first artificial intelligence summit. Getty Images
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When the UK hosts its first global AI summit on Wednesday, observers will be watching closely for the coup of getting China and the US around the same table after months of schism at the leading edge of technological progress.

As a select handful of Silicon Valley executives descend on Bletchley Park, the birthplace of modern computing, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be hoping the home of codebreaking will help to cement the UK’s status as a leading world player in cutting-edge technology.

But experts believe the real feat is getting two of the world's major players – China and the US – together to join in the conversation.

Experts told The National that the summit, which is set to focus on AI safety, is unlikely to have ground-breaking consequences but will be the start of an important discussion.

The summit has been criticised as some key world leaders have stepped back from attending.

China is expected to send Wu Zhaohui, a vice minister of science and technology, alongside representatives from its Foreign Ministry, companies and academic bodies, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Alibaba and Tencent.

The White House has confirmed US Vice President Kamala Harris will attend in place of President Joe Biden, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are not expected to show.

Alex Krasodomski, senior research associate with Chatham House's Digital Society Initiative, told The National it will still be a coup for Mr Sunak to host China and the US in the same room.

“This is a passion project for the Prime Minister,” said Mr Krasodomski. "He cares a lot about AI and sees it for what it is – a transformative technology, for better or for worse. He is worried about the risks of AI and, very specifically, the frontier risks of the most powerful AI models."

“The summit will focus on frontier existential risks, such as the threat of AI not playing ball, not being able to turn it off and the difficulties in controlling it."

There will be discussions over the existential risks of AI models falling into the hands of terrorists and hostile states, as well as the risks of it creating AI bioweapons, he said.

If they can keep the discussions really narrow and focused on existential threats, they might be able to get something out of it that will help,” said Mr Krasodomski.

“If they can, ultimately, agree that they do not want AI that is not controllable by humans or falling into the hands of the Russian state for developing bioweapons, if they said 'let's set up an international body for AI safety', that would be a pretty positive outcome.

“But the question will be whether the UK is able to facilitate those kinds of agreements between the US and China.

“I think they will be hoping for an international agreement on AI safety but I do not think any binding commitments will come out of the summit. But I think an image of Rishi with the US and Chinese delegation will be quite a pivotal moment.

Summit organiser Matt Clifford said the two-day event would focus on managing the risks AI poses.

“We’ve chosen to have a very small, very focused summit, which aims to get to substantive outcomes and where every attendee is an active participant,” he said.

“It’s not a huge conference like WebSummit or Cop. Bletchley Park is a brilliant but very small venue – perfect for a focused discussion in small groups.”

There will be about 100 attendees, including ministers from around the world, chief executives of companies “building AI at the frontier”, academics and representatives of international civil society organisations, he said.

“This summit, though, is narrowly focused on frontier risk, so it’s appropriate that the company attendees are those building the most powerful models, but this isn’t so they can pull up the drawbridge,” he said.

“We’re acutely aware of that risk. We want the opposite: companies building systems with potentially dangerous capabilities should be subject to greater scrutiny."

Bletchley Park - in pictures

“AI companies are working hard on their approaches to safety, but it won't be sufficient for them to mark their own homework.”

Mr Clifford said the summit would primarily focus on how to make frontier AI safe.

“In some areas this requires conversations about specific applications, but I'd emphasise that the summit is the start of a conversation and can't hope to resolve all the open questions in two days. It’s important that we have some alignment between both companies and countries on frontier risk,” he said.

Representatives from the world’s three major AI labs – OpenAI, Google DeepMind and Anthropic – are expected to attend, along with British technology entrepreneur Mustafa Suleyman and executives from Google, Microsoft and Meta.

The UK has insisted it is taking the lead on AI at the behest of US President Joe Biden and because the two countries have some of the leading companies in the sector.

But it has reportedly been forced to scale back its ambitions around certain ideas, such as launching a new regulatory body, amid a perceived lack of enthusiasm.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is one of the only world leaders flying in for the conference, which starts on Wednesday.

More than 100 UK and international organisations, experts and campaigners published an open letter on Monday to Mr Sunak, branding the summit a “missed opportunity”, too tailored towards “big tech” firms.

The coalition – which includes unions, rights groups such as Amnesty International and tech community voices – warned “communities and workers most affected by AI have been marginalised,” with invitations “selective and limited”.

But the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said he was confident the right people were attending.

“We remain confident that we have brought together the right group of world experts in the AI space, leading businesses and, indeed, world leaders and representatives who will be able to take on this vital issue,” she said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said he was confident that using the historic location of Bletchley Park would help in leading changes.

“No country will be untouched by AI and no country alone will solve the challenges posed by this technology. In our interconnected world, we must have an international approach,” he said.

“The origins of modern AI can be traced back to Bletchley Park. Now, it will also be home to the global effort to shape the responsible use of AI.”

The roots of AI can be linked to the leading minds who worked at Bletchley during the Second World War, with codebreakers Jack Good and Donald Michie among those who went on to write extensive works on the technology.

It was the covert team at Bletchley Park that cracked the enemy's secret encrypted messages and their work is believed to have shortened the war by two years.

“It is fitting that the very spot where leading minds harnessed emerging technologies to influence the successful outcome of the Second World War will once again be the crucible for international co-ordinated action,” said Iain Standen, chief executive of the Bletchley Park Trust.

“We are incredibly excited to be providing the stage for discussions on global safety standards, which will help everyone manage and monitor the risks of artificial intelligence.”

Mr Krasodomski said the choice of location would definitely help the UK's bid to attract more AI businesses.

“Britain will use the summit as a sales pitch to businesses to come and start their AI business in the UK,” he said.

“The big question is whether it will be successful. There are a lot of people who should be in the room who aren’t.”

Updated: October 31, 2023, 3:20 PM