Rome wasn’t built in a day – first thoughts on the Bletchley Park AI Safety Summit

9 November 2023
By Dru Corfield

The dust is beginning to settle on the much hyped (albeit nebulously orientated) Bletchley Park Artificial Intelligence Summit. Although it will take time for meaningful directives to filter out of the sleekly edited videos and beaming group photos of world leaders, some high-level observations can be made.

The first thing to note is the inherent contradiction between attempting to bring together a group of self-interested parties for the purpose of collective wellbeing. The ‘Bletchley Declaration’, signed by 28 countries, is an opaque commitment to co-ordinate international efforts on safeguarding against the dangers posed by AI. But a tension exists between nation states competing against each other for supremacy of the technology (and all the potential fiscal, technological and societal benefits that could entail) while recognising that in the wrong hands AI could have nefarious consequences and therefore needs a degree of regulation. In light of that fundamental conflict, the Bletchley Declaration can be viewed as a good start. It does not signal a new global regulatory framework, but it may be the blueprint for some such achievement in the future.

Perhaps the starkest demonstration of nations jostling for the title of world leader/global referee of AI development is the fact that on the first day of the Summit Kamala Harris, US Vice President, gave a speech at the US Embassy in London, unveiling the ‘United States AI Safety Institute’ on the responsible use of AI. This somewhat took the wind out of Rishi Sunak’s sails, who was hoping that the Bletchley Summit would be a springboard for the UK’s own Global AI Safety Institute. The UK Safety Institute is still going ahead, with various international partners, industry participants and academics, but significantly the USA has made clear that it will not be joining. Notably, the US Institute has had 30 signatories, one of whom is the UK.

Beyond typical Great Power rivalries, the Bletchley Summit was also forced to grapple between futuristic, dystopian deployment of AI on the one hand and real world ‘already happening’ AI risk on the other. Critics of the Summit pointed out that much of the discussion around AI safety and regulation focused on the former, at the expense of the latter. For example, the Prime Minister had an hour-long sit down with Elon Musk, who has been well documented in his “AI could end humanity” narrative, a position on which – among the tech community – the jury is still out. But little thought or discussion was given to the potential short-term impacts of AI, such as the warning by Nick Clegg of Meta that there is a real chance that invidious AI could generate disinformation and affect the elections next year in the US, India, Indonesia, Mexico and the UK. Likewise, little thought was given to the danger of discrimination bias in AI’s deep learning algorithms, which has already been demonstrated to have undesirable effects, for example in automated underwriting within the insurance industry (be it racial, geographical, or class bias).

Similarly, the TUC was one of a dozen signatories to a letter to the Prime Minister that outlined concerns about the interest groups of the Summit. The opinion and concerns of small businesses (who have been documented as some of those most concerned about the threat of AI) were almost entirely overlooked in favour of the big tech firms. The argument suggested was that the power and influence of the companies like Meta, Google and X created a narrow interest group for the Summit, whereby some of the parties most concerned about AI safety did not get representation, let alone a seat at the table.

Perhaps focusing on the criticisms levied at the Summit is unfair, given the old mantra ‘if you try to please everyone, you’ll please no one’: given the complexities of AI and the amount of interest groups involved, it was almost inevitable that there would be grumblings. In some sense, any agreement should be mildly heralded – it could be argued that managing to get China and the USA to attend the same Summit was a diplomatic win, let alone to have both of them signing the Declaration. And as mentioned above, the Bletchley Summit is only a starting point: the Republic of Korea will co-host a virtual summit within the next six months before France hosts the next in-person event in 12 months. While it is true that there few concrete commitments or directives emerged from Buckinghamshire, Roma uno die non est condita.

Dru Corfield is an associate at Fenchurch Law