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AI Safety Summit 2023: A mixed welcome to the Bletchley Declaration

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak poses for a family photo with world leaders and business people on day two of the UK AI Summit at Bletchley Park
Image credit: UK Government

The AI Safety Summit, and the subsequent Rishi Sunak x Elon Musk event, garnered as much coverage in the mainstream press about the politics behind them as the topics discussed. But while the attendees might not quite have met Sunak’s hopes, it was still a high-powered affair, with people like US VP Kamala Harris and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, joining industry names like Elon Musk and OpenAI’s Sam Altman.

The final declaration recognised the potential for AI, but also recognised the need for international cooperation to ensure it is adopted safely and securely. But it fell short of calling for any specific regulation. And while there has been both criticism and praise for the Bletchley Park Declaration, it’s worth highlighting that in international diplomacy, getting any agreement between diverse nations is no small feat.

The wide-ranging risks of AI

Musk’s remarks about the existential threat of AI distracted from a summit that discussed the whole gamut of what AI could mean to the world. And this included the more practical — and immediate — threats to areas like privacy, cybersecurity, and jobs.

The non-AI implications

Some commentators were quick to highlight that AI is not just about technology. Margo Waldorf, founder of Change Awards, noted that the human aspect is just as important. “Road mapping the future of AI is essential,” she said. Focusing on the fact that many are seeing AI introduced to complement, rather than replace, existing jobs, she added, “We cannot forget about the human side of AI adoption, balancing how we can make AI work hand in hand with staff to maximise productivity.”

AdSignal CEO Tom Dunning also flagged the cost of AI, especially during a phase when businesses are introducing it because they can rather than because they should. “Industry has been treating AI as the solution for every problem, adopting it into applications that don’t actually rely on AI to be efficient.” This widespread implementation not only creates risks, but has an environmental impact, he says. “AI training, in particular, is causing significant environmental damage as it is by far the most power and cooling hungry aspect of AI, with estimates that a single AI model can emit over 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Sustainability and climate impact have to bear weight as part of global AI discussions.”

The role for the software industry

The need for a global framework was highlighted by some, Sachin Agrawal, the UK Managing Director at Zoho Corporation said, “It is critical to prioritise this and formulate a global strategy.” However, he noted that government action and regulation was not all that is needed, “guardrails should be in place to ensure information […] does not compromise customer data,” he said, but added that, “this should be explored by anyone looking to using AI services within their business.”

Too little, and possibly too late

The most common criticism was that the summit did not do enough to provide the regulatory framework. Because AI is a borderless technology, many noted that the solution has to be global. Nigel Green, CEO of financial advisors and fintech, deVere, felt that Sunak had missed an opportunity to take a lead. “There’s much talk and debate about the potential for serious, catastrophic harm posed by advanced or frontier AI technology, and even an existential risk to humanity in the coming decades,” he said, but added, “the talk stops short of urging governments to impose specific regulations.”

His criticism was echoed by Paul Teather, the CEO of AMPLYFI. Citing Sunak’s comment that the UK ‘won’t rush to regulate AI’, Teather said, “ensuring frontier AI advancements are implemented as safely as possible requires the creation of robust regulatory frameworks delivered at pace.”

Others felt that the summit had allowed itself to be carried away by sensationalism. Scott Dawson, Head of Sales and Strategic Partnerships at DECTA, an end-to-end payments systems provider, highlighted that for many, AI is actually an old technology, pointing that machine learning and AI has been used in anti-fraud checks for years. He commented that for most businesses, their key difficulties were “from high costs, high inflation rates and low consumption, which AI is not able to address.” Any summit needed a more realistic approach, he said. “Both the threats and benefits of AI are being oversold, and unless its participants have a very clear-eyed view of what is possible, then this summit won’t help the UK’s companies at such a critical time.”

A danger of big tech domination

Dawson was not the only industry figure to consider the risks as oversold. Dr Lewis Z. Liu, the founder and CEO of Eigen Technologies, believes that focusing on catastrophe actually creates risks itself. It’s “a deeply flawed analysis and an agenda set by those Big Tech companies seeking to dominate the policymaking process,” he said. The risk is that by focusing on existential threats, big tech will have a major influence on the policy framework, to the detriment of smaller businesses and startups. “This would be a disaster that would slow down realising the benefits of AI while not addressing the real challenges that do exist around IP, bias, and the need for robust model governance,” he added.

But a good start for the UK

However, despite the criticism, by hosting the first AI Safety Summit in the UK, Sunak may have helped cement the country’s position as a leader in the field. Dr Yi Ding, Assistant Professor of Information Systems at the Gillmore Centre for Financial Technology at WBS, shared this assessment. “Bringing together global AI experts was a positive step in the development of AI and cementing the UK’s position as a leader in this area,” he said.

And Ala Uddin, Co-Founder of business comparison site Beasy, echoed these sentiments, flying the flag for the UK saying, “there’s arguably no better place to build impactful and ethically conscious AI right now than the UK, especially for Tech start-ups, where the fusion of innovation, regulation, and global leadership creates a fertile ground for impactful AI advancements.”

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