March 4, 2024
Dazzled by big tech, the UK's AI summit is neglecting the big issues


World leaders and tech titans are currently descending on southern England for an AI safety summit, but the flashy event isn’t impressing everyone.

Over the next two days, around 100 bigwigs will attend the event at the historic Bletchley Park, a country estate around 90km north of London. During World War Two, the site was home to the codebreakers who cracked Nazi Germany’s notorious Enigma encryption device. Some 80 years later, the British government wants to show that the UK is still a tech superpower — but the plans have caused alarm.

Critics have various concerns. They worry that the summit organisers are spellbound by “frontier AI,” famous names, and far-flung fears, while overlooking more pressing and inclusive issues.

A show-stealing late addition to the schedule elevated their suspicions. On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak revealed that he will be “in conversation” with Elon Musk on X.

Musk adds further lustre to a star-studded guest list.

Among the invitees are several political heavyweights, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and Chinese Vice Minister Wu Zhaohui.

Also in attendance are various tech titans, such as Microsoft President Brad Smith, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, and Meta AI chief Yann LeCun. But the event is not for everyone.

“My fear is that the summit will focus on headline-grabbing existential threats.

Much of the tech sector feels that only industry giants and political leaders will be seated at Sunak’s conference table.

Dr Hector Zenil, the founder of healthcare startup Oxford Immune Algorithmics, is worried that the event will be dominated by generative AI and big tech. He has called on Sunak to involve a greater balance of commercial and academic representation.

“If the AI Safety Summit is to be judged a success — or at least on the right path to creating consensus on AI safety, regulation, and ethics — then the UK government must strive to create an even playing field for all parties to discuss the future use cases for the technology,” Zenil said.

“The Summit cannot be dominated by those corporations with a specific agenda and narrative around their commercial interests, otherwise this week’s activities will be seen as an expensive and misleading marketing exercise.”

Zenil’s views are common across the sector. Among the industry insiders who share his unease is Victor Botev, the CTO and co-founder of Iris.ai, an Oslo-based startup.

A former AI researcher at Chalmers University and now a business leader, Botev wants broader representation from both academia and industry at the meeting.

“It is vital for any consultation on AI regulation to include perspectives beyond just the tech giants,” he said. “Smaller AI firms and open-source developers often pioneer new innovations, yet their voices on regulation go unheard. The summit missed a great opportunity by only including 100 guests, who are primarily made up of world leaders and big tech companies.”

Venture capitalists have raised similar concerns. 

“Going forward, we also must have more voices for startups themselves. The AI safety summit’s focus on big tech, and shutting out of many in the AI startup community, is disappointing,” said Ekaterina Almasque, General Partner at European VC OpenOcean

“It is vital that industry voices are included when shaping regulations that will directly impact technological development.”

Frontier AI apocalypses

The glitzy guestlist has been accompanied by a fittingly dramatic agenda. This combination, critics say, is a distraction from more pressing concerns.

They note that the programme will exclusively focus on “frontier” AI systems — a hazy term for advanced, general-purpose AI models. In a recent government report, the term “frontier AI” was applied almost entirely to large language models (LLMs) — particularly OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

Zenil suspects the focus has been influenced by CEOs who are invested in this field. He wants the government to take a broader view.

“It is absolutely critical that the UK has a coherent strategy for AI that encompasses all aspects of the technology and different models. Above all, this is important because no one approach will become the ‘silver bullet’ for AI adoption,” he said.

“If the AI Summit at Bletchley Park and the AI advisory committee are dominated by individuals with a particular research or commercial focus for AI, then it will make it harder to develop regulatory frameworks which reflect all the potential use cases.”

Dr Hector Zenil, Oxford Immune Algorithmics founder