Sunak Eyes AI Summit as Chance to Reclaim Pioneering Role for UK

Rishi Sunak has spent months saying he wants the UK to lead the world in developing and regulating artificial intelligence. That strategy is finally taking shape.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak has spent months saying he wants the UK to lead the world in developing and regulating artificial intelligence. That strategy is finally taking shape. 

The prime minister plans a summit later this year that aims, for the first time, to bring together world leaders and top AI executives in an event that’s supported by Joe Biden. The US president and other G7 leaders, along with tech chiefs including OpenAI chief Sam Altman, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Anthropic’s Dario Amodei and DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis are expected to be invited, said people familiar with the plans.

In a sign of Sunak’s vision, officials are eyeing Bletchley Park as a possible venue: the country house between the research hubs of Oxford and Cambridge was where British code-breakers including Alan Turing cracked Germany’s Enigma code during World War II in an early demonstration of computational power. 

There is a debate on whether to invite China amid concerns it may be hard to reach agreement with the Asian nation on AI regulation, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public.

At stake is the future of a rapidly-developing area of computing that has the potential to speed up medical diagnoses and cut transport emissions but could also be used for nefarious purposes such as rigging elections and spreading false information. The $40 billion generative AI market could increase 30-fold over the next 10 years, according to estimates by Bloomberg Intelligence.

“The UK is showing that it can have a leadership role between China, the US, and Europe,” said Brent Hoberman, co-founder of travel site and tech-focused events business Founders Forum. “It’s not just about reining it in, it’s also about making the UK a center of talent for AI and of adoption.”

For the UK, it’s a rare opportunity post-Brexit to make a mark on the global stage in the development of a truly transformative new technology. 

While Sunak has said AI needs “guardrails,” what shape that takes has yet to be defined. Officials familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that areas the UK wants to look at include setting a threshold of computing power — measured in Floating Point Operations Per Second, or FLOPs — above which AI chips would be regulated, and using watermarks to identify material generated by AI. 

Also up for discussion is whether and how to monitor who’s buying the most powerful chips from semiconductor design companies such as Nvidia Corp., according to the people. The US is already working to tighten export controls around sales of such chips to China. 

The UK government said in a statement that the summit in the fall would bring together “key countries, as well as leading technology companies and researchers, to drive targeted, rapid international action.” 

The government is preparing to announce fuller details of the conference, including its date, location and invitees, in the coming weeks, the people familiar with the matter said. 

The summit aims to “create a shared understanding of those risks and a platform for global cooperation on thinking about how to mitigate them,” Entrepreneur First Chief Executive Officer Matt Clifford, who’s helping prepare the summit, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview. 

Clifford, who’s also chairman of the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency, the UK’s equivalent to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wouldn’t comment on whether China would be invited, but said “in any global technology where you have both global risks and global consequences, it’s going to be important to take a genuinely international perspective.”

Still, there is some wariness about China. A panel of MPs warned earlier this year that China is using both investment and espionage to target telecommunications, artificial intelligence and engineering in Britain. 

Sunak, a Stanford graduate who spent years studying and working in California’s Silicon Valley, has vowed to make the UK a science “superpower.” British influence in AI regulation can feed into that even if the UK lacks the economic heft of its allies: its £1 billion plan to bolster domestic semiconductor development, for example, was dwarfed by the US $50 billion and EU’s €43 billion ($47 billion) proposals.

Major AI companies are firmly established in the UK. Alphabet Inc.’s DeepMind has its headquarters in Britain and OpenAI and Anthropic are opening London offices. Home-grown players include Synthesia, Graphcore and Stability AI.

For now, western governments are feeling around on AI rules. Biden’s administration has asked firms to ensure the technology doesn’t lead to harm, but for now, commitments are voluntary. Congress has spent months trying to better understand AI before drafting any legislation. 

The European Union is set to become the first Western government to regulate AI, with policymakers negotiating legislation potentially by year-end. Even so, it’s unlikely they would take effect for at least a couple of years. Sunak, for his part, has yet to flesh out his proposed guardrails into rules or laws.

China, too, is taking action, trying to balance state control of the technology while allowing its firms to become viable global competitors.

The aim of Sunak’s summit is “not to say that the UK has the right solution, which it wants the rest of the world to adopt,” said Clifford. “It’s to provide a platform for the conversation about what needs to be global and international and where will domestic regulation be enough.”

–With assistance from Thomas Seal, Kitty Donaldson, Mark Bergen, Courtney Rozen, Jillian Deutsch and Lynn Doan.

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