Rishi Sunak Finds US Reluctant to Give Ground on AI Safety to UK

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak convened this week’s AI summit in an effort to position the UK at the forefront of global efforts to stave off the risks presented by the rapidly-advancing technology — which in the prime minister’s own words, could extend as far as human extinction.

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But the reality exposed during the 2-day gathering of politicians and industry experts at Bletchley Park, north of London, is the US is reluctant to cede much of a leadership role on artificial intelligence to its close ally.

Sunak last week said the UK would set up the “world’s first AI safety institute,” designed to test new forms of the technology. At the summit on Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced the US would create its own institute. Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a speech on US efforts away from the conference to allow for more press attention.

“The US definitely cut across the summit,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. He called the timing of the US announcements “insensitive because this was Rishi Sunak’s attempt to show the world that the UK is in the lead.”

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told the summit Wednesday that while countries must work together to find global solutions to global problems, “we will compete as nations.”

Nevertheless, the US and UK were quick to damp down any sense of tension, with a British official saying the US told Britain of its plans to open its own institute months ago, with the announcement planned to coincide with the event. An American official said the administration worked very closely with the UK on the summit and the policy roll-outs. At the same time, Harris’s team was pleased with the attention her speech received.

“It’s a very welcome development, that countries like the US are also developing a safety institute,” Sunak said in his press conference at the close of the conference on Thursday. “They’ve been very clear they expect to work closely with us, and that was what we wanted to achieve at this summit.”

But the fact that Sunak sought US President Joe Biden’s backing to host the summit in the first place — during a visit to Washington in June — illustrated Britain’s status as a junior partner.

That’s also a reflection of the relative size of the industry in the two nations. While Sunak has sought to highlight Britain’s position as the third AI power after the US and China, its industry is dwarfed by that in the world’s two biggest economies. The UK AI industry attracted $4.4 billion of investment last year — less than a third of the size of China’s, and below one 10th of US investment, according to Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Index Report.

And while Britain is a European hub for AI and has attracted ChatGPT-maker OpenAI to open its first international office, British-built companies like DeepMind as well as world-class chip design firm Arm Holdings Ltd have sought US investment to pursue their global potential.

Sunak also risks losing ground to the US and European Union on imposing the sorts of guardrails he says the industry needs. While the prime minister last week said countries “shouldn’t be in a rush to regulate” AI, the EU is pushing ahead with legislation that’s expected to become law by the end of the year, while Biden on Monday signed an executive order that empowers the federal government to enact security standards and privacy protections on new AI tools.

Arriving at the summit on Thursday, Sunak told reporters there’s a case to believe AI “may pose risks on a scale like pandemics and nuclear war.” But at a news conference later, he said that in order to regulate the technology and make sure it is safe, “we have to have the capability, we need to understand what these models are capable of, to do that safety testing and evaluation.”

The UK’s AI minister, Jonathan Berry said the UK is not planning any AI legislation in the forthcoming session of Parliament, which polls suggest could be the last for this government. Sunak, however, sought to dispel the idea he’s moving too slowly, telling journalists that Britain is “ahead of I think any other country in developing the capabilities and tools that we need to keep people safe,” pointing to the “significant funding” backing the new UK institute.

Sunak and his team are bullish about the summit’s success with the prime minister hailing its “truly historic set of achievements” and “very tangible outcomes.”

At Bletchley Park, Britain rallied 28 nations including the US and China to sign a joint statement on AI, securing a diplomatic coup when representatives of the US, UK, EU and China stood side-by-side on stage to present a united approach. And while the conference was slim on world leaders — Biden didn’t come, leaving Italy’s Giorgia Meloni as Sunak’s sole Group of Seven colleague to attend — there were plenty of AI industry luminaries, not least the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, who one diplomat described as being “mobbed” and holding court with delegates from tech companies and civil society.

But with the US and EU forging ahead on AI regulation, and South Korea and France set to host the next two AI summits, the risk is any leadership the UK hoped to have ends at Bletchley Park, where the world’s first electronic computer, Colossus, was used by Britain’s World War II codebreakers.

“A summit’s success is partly reliant on the event itself but, to a more significant extent, is the way you follow up on what’s said and shape those outcomes,” said Menon, adding that to stay ahead, the UK needs to begin to regulate soon. “The danger is if the UK doesn’t get the next bit right and this becomes a triumph of style over substance.”

--With assistance from Thomas Seal and Amy Thomson.

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