Will Rishi Sunak's AI summit be a success?

PM gambles on bringing world leaders to the UK, even as key figures stay away

Rishi Sunak delivers a speech on AI in London, 26 October 2023
It would represent a 'diplomatic coup' for Rishi Sunak if he can get Washington and Beijing to agree to a statement on AI risks
(Image credit: Peter Nicolls/Pool//AFP via Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak will be hoping his high-stakes gamble to position the UK as a global leader in AI safety pays off as politicians, tech leaders, business experts and academics prepare to meet at Bletchley Park.  

The setting for the world's first artificial intelligence (AI) safety summit is deeply symbolic for the prime minister. Home to the World War Two codebreakers, Bletchley Park is seen by many as the birthplace of modern computing and harks back to a time when Britain led the world in technological innovation in defence of democratic values.

Eighty years on, what "remains to be seen is whether a narrowly focused and hastily organised global summit can significantly catalyse a co-ordinated global response to AI’s development", said the Institute for Government.

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What did the papers say?

The potential threats posed by "frontier AI" – powerful large-language models and the main focus of the two-day summit – was outlined in a government paper last week that included bio-terrorism, cyberattacks and advanced AI choosing to control itself.

Yet some experts fear that the summit has "got its priorities wrong", said the BBC. The "risk of extreme doomsday scenarios are comparatively small", said the broadcaster, "and there are more immediate threats, far closer to home, which will be more worrying for many people". 

Among the most pressing are the large amount of energy consumed by the computing infrastructure required to drive the AI sector and the impact it is already having on jobs.

Downing Street has rejected claims that no-shows from US President Joe Biden, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and France's Emmanuel Macron represent a "snub". Instead No.10 has pointed to the attendance of US Vice President Kamala Harris, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and UN Secretary General António Guterres, as well as a host of high-level representatives from leading tech firms. 

But the "lack of star names could point to an uncomfortable reality for team Sunak", said Politico. The PM's summit has "strained relations with allies" from the US and EU, who see it as an "irritating distraction from their own arguably more substantial governance initiatives".

Sunak wants the summit to do three things, said The Times's Whitehall editor Chris Smyth, "and only one of them has much to do with artificial intelligence". Sunak has already succeeded in pushing the existential risks of AI higher up the world agenda, Smyth argued, which would also contribute to his attempt to "prove that Britain has recovered from its post-Brexit meltdown". Finally, there is "raw politics" and the hope that hosting a summit of world leaders on a subject of genuine global significance – even if most voters don't understand it – will show him as a tech-savvy leader of the future willing to take difficult long-term decisions.

What next?

With senior representatives of both the US and China invited, Politico said that "the stage is set for Sunak to achieve where others have failed: to get Washington and Beijing talking and even – whisper it – signing a shared communiqué outlining the risks of AI".

While this would be "quite the diplomatic coup", said the news site, "and one that could mark the difference between success and failure for Sunak's much-hyped summit", it is just one of "four key results" for the organisers, a government insider told the Financial Times. The others are the creation of an AI Safety Institute, an international panel that will research AI's evolving risks, and the announcement of the event's next host country.

Sunak intends for this to be the first in a series of regular international AI summits, following the template set by G7, G20 and COP conferences. If as widely expected he is voted out of office next year, he may not get to attend another, said The Guardian, "but if they do continue, they could be one of his most lasting legacies".

The Bletchley Park gathering is undoubtedly "a gamble", concluded the Institute for Government, but if it results in the UK setting the global agenda in AI governance, then it will be "a gamble that paid off".

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