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Good morning. Rishi Sunak’s artificial intelligence summit in Bletchley Park has kick-started a worldwide set of moves to develop AI safety, so: success. But that process has highlighted that any prospect that the UK can be a world leader in that field and not a mere convener of talking shops is a bit of a fantasy, so: failure. Some more thoughts on that below.
The US executive order on AI regulation and the establishment of its own AI safety institute should be seen as a consciously timed move to underline American dominance and leadership not just in AI research but in its regulation too, as John Thornhill explains in a smart column for today’s FT:
Kamala Harris scores high marks for honesty even if she may not graduate top in diplomacy. Standing alongside US president Joe Biden before he signed Monday’s executive order regulating artificial intelligence, the vice-president spelt out her country’s intent to remain the world’s technological hegemon and write its own rules of the game.
“Let us be clear: when it comes to AI, America is a global leader. It is American companies that lead the world in AI innovation. It is America that can catalyse global action and build global consensus in a way that no other country can,” Harris said, pointedly. Then, she flew off to the UK government’s Bletchley Park summit on AI safety.
The executive order, which focuses on current harms such as privacy, security, discrimination and disinformation, involves more than 25 government agencies. It is the most comprehensive attempt to date to regulate the world’s biggest AI companies. It will prove far more consequential than the worthy but toothless Bletchley Declaration, agreed this week by 28 countries and the EU.
Equally, however, Sunak’s AI summit has succeeded in driving forward this agenda. Part of why the US has acted now and to significant effect is to assert its dominance. So, with regard to Sunak’s biggest and most important aim in his summit, this is a good day’s work for the prime minister.
And talking shops matter — as John points out, this was a summit at which American and Chinese leaders shared a stage. If “all” Sunak has managed with the government’s gathering in Bletchley Park is to add a new event on the global summit calendar where world leaders can meet and talk, then that might be a pretty big “all”.
One source of unease whenever I talk either to ambassadorial staff here in the UK or to Foreign Office officials is that the Sino-American relationship lacks many of the back channels and talking shops that the US and the Soviet Union had.
It took the Cuban missile crisis for the famous “red phone” (not actually a red telephone) allowing the White House to talk swiftly with the Kremlin to be set up. Anything that gets to that route without a hair-trigger crisis that could easily have ended the world is a good day’s work and an ideal legacy for any prime minister.
But it is a hammer blow to the idea that the UK can establish itself as a leader in the field. It’s not so long ago that Sunak was railing against the idea that the UK was a midsize country with a limited ability to set the global rules of the road as far as AI is concerned, as George Parker and Lucy Fisher recounted in their excellent FT Magazine piece back in September:
The plane was 35,000ft over the Atlantic when Rishi Sunak finally snapped. The breaking point was a question from the Financial Times about why the British prime minister thought a “midsize country” might be in a position to write the global rules for artificial intelligence. There was a flash of anger in his eyes. “That midsize country you talked about,” Sunak began, before proceeding to extol Britain’s position as a global leader in technology.
There’s a big Brexit-related point here. Once again we’ve seen that the idea that the UK can set out its own course and regulatory approach separate from the great global powers or its local trade hegemon falls short in reality. Navigating that is a political and policy challenge for Sunak, just as it will be for his successors.
Now try this
I’m off to see How To Have Sex, a new British comedy film, about which I have heard good things even though the title does not fill me with confidence.
However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend!
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