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Britain aims for global leadership role with AI safety summit

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Britain will host the world’s first global artificial intelligence (AI) safety summit next month, aiming to carve out a role following Brexit as an arbiter between the United States, China, and the European Union in a key tech sector.

The Nov. 1-2 summit will focus heavily on the existential threat some lawmakers, including Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, fear AI poses. Sunak, who wants the UK to become a hub for AI safety, has warned the technology could be used by criminals and terrorists to create weapons of mass destruction.

The EU, in contrast, has so far prioritised the technology’s implications for human rights and corporate transparency.

Sunak will host around 100 guests at Bletchley Park, the site in southern England where mathematician Alan Turing cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma code.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis head a guest list that includes lawmakers, AI pioneers and academics.

The aim of the summit is to kick-start international dialogue on AI regulation, said Matt Clifford, a tech investor and one of its two chief organisers.

“It’s not a parliament,” Clifford said. “We’re not making laws, we’re not making treaties. We’re trying to bring different people into the conversation with very different opinions.”

The UK government’s agenda for the event, published this week, includes discussions on the unpredictable advances of the technology and the potential for humans to lose control of it.

But some experts argue the conference shouldn’t focus so specifically on existential threats. They say there are more pressing matters at hand.

“Most people I speak to are baffled that the UK has taken this approach,” said Stephanie Hare, author and leading researcher in technology ethics. “The question is: What are you going to do about it?”

When Sunak first announced the summit in June, high profile figures had already been sounding the alarm about AI’s existential risks. Tesla mogul Elon Musk called for a pause in the development of such systems. Former Google researcher and “godfather of AI” Geoffrey Hinton warned the technology posed a more urgent threat to humanity than climate change.

Critics question why Britain has appointed itself the centre of AI safety. But supporters say the summit will underline London’s position as a world-leading technology hub. According to recent Dealroom data, British tech companies raised more capital in 2022 than those in France and Germany combined.

In the weeks after Sunak announced the summit, OpenAI announced it would open its first office outside of the US in London, while Google (GOOGL.O) published an analysis suggesting further investment in AI would provide a 400 billion pounds ($488 billion) boost to Britain’s economy by 2030.

Marc Warner, CEO of London-based AI firm Faculty, who is attending the summit, said: “There’s three big poles in the world: the US, the EU, and China. If you’re going to try and do some kind of international collaboration, it’s not obvious that any one of those would let it be situated in the others.”

He added: “If you agree that London is the third most important AI city, behind San Francisco and Beijing, and that Britain is relatively neutral compared to the three big blocs, it’s a sensible proposition.”

The EU recently confirmed Vice President Vera Jourova had received an invitation to the event, but wouldn’t confirm her attendance.

“We are now reflecting on potential EU participation,” a spokesperson told Reuters.

At the time of writing, the two members of the European Parliament who led the drafting of the bloc’s AI Act, Brando Benifei and Dragos Tudorache, had not received invitations.

“It seems that this event’s focus on safety might be a different concept of safety from the AI Act, which has been centered around protecting fundamental rights,” Benifei said.

While the architects of AI regulation in Europe may not be present, the British government faced criticism over one potential attendee: China.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt defended the decision in an interview with Politico, saying: “If you’re trying to create structures that make AI something that overall is a net benefit to humanity, then you can’t just ignore the second-biggest economy in the world.”

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