Published On: Mon, Oct 23rd, 2023

Britain’s Big AI Summit Is a Doom-Obsessed Mess

Britain’s Big AI Summit Is a Doom-Obsessed Mess
Britain’s Big AI Summit Is a Doom-Obsessed Mess

“I completely agree with [Sunak’s] strategy, which is to attempt international consensus. But my guess is international consensus will form only around the broadest of principles,” says Jeremy Wright, a former UK digital minister for Sunak’s Conservative Party. “Feasibly, if you’re going to do anything, you probably have to do it nationally before you do it internationally.”

Two sources with knowledge of discussions confirmed Politico’s reporting from earlier this month that Sunak will pitch an AI Safety Institute to attendees. And, they said, the British government will propose a register of frontier models that would let governments see inside the black box of frontier AI and get ahead of any potential dangers. The initiative will involve asking model developers to provide early access to their models so they can be “red teamed” and their potential risks assessed.

Most of the big US companies have already signed up to an American government pledge on safety. It’s not clear why they’d feel the need to sign up to a new one, and commit to handing over valuable proprietary information to a UK body.

Critics of the UK’s doom summit—including members of the ruling Conservative Party—fear it is doomed to, at best, mediocrity. The real reason, they say, that the summit has been rushed through is domestic politics. It’s something that Sunak can show, or at least pretend, to be leading the world on at a time he is trailing in polls and seen as near guaranteed to lose power in the next election. The evidence of that, several insiders point out, is the choice of venue—a 19th century country mansion associated with a time the UK truly was a top global power in computing.

Bletchley Park was where Britain’s World War II cryptographers cracked the Nazis “Enigma” Code. The site is indelibly linked with one of the most significant figures in British computing, Alan Turing. Which is, no doubt, why the UK government chose the venue. Practically, it makes less sense. Bletchley Park is 50 miles from London and “a pain in the arse to get to,” according to one government adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity because they still occasionally work for the Department of Science and Technology. But that distance doesn’t make it conveniently remote and secure either. During the second World War, the campus was situated away from prying eyes, but it is now on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, a small city built after the war that has long been a punchline in the UK, synonymous with concrete blandness and famed for its profusion of roundabouts.

It’s a venue that, like the summit itself, suggests to some that symbolism triumphed over substance. One tech executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was still hoping to deal with the government, calls it “government by photo op.” He’s taking solace in the fact that Sunak’s Conservative Party is likely to lose the next election, which has to be held before January 2025. “They’ll be gone in 18 months,” he says.

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