AI has prompted concerns
AI has prompted concerns ranging from possible job losses and cyber attacks to humankind losing control of the systems. AFP

The UK government will welcome foreign political leaders, tech industry figures, academics and others this week for a two-day summit billed as the first of its kind on artificial intelligence (AI).

The gathering, set to be attended by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US Vice President Kamala Harris, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, will focus on growing fears about the implications of so-called frontier AI.

The most advanced generation of AI models, they have prompted concerns around everything from job losses and cyber attacks to humankind losing control of the systems they have designed.

Sunak and other leaders have increasingly joined the industry itself in arguing current knowledge and regulation of frontier AI is likely insufficient for the challenges it will pose.

"My vision, and our ultimate goal, should be to work towards a more international approach to safety where we collaborate with partners to ensure AI systems are safe before they are released," the British leader said in a speech earlier this week.

"We will push hard to agree the first ever international statement about the nature of these risks," he added, proposing the creation of an international expert panel similar to one formed for climate change.

London, which initiated the gathering, has insisted it is taking the lead on AI at the behest of US President Joe Biden, and because the two countries have some of the leading companies in the sector.

But it has reportedly been forced to scale back its ambitions around certain ideas, such as launching a new regulatory body, amid a perceived lack of enthusiasm.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is one of the only world leaders flying in for the conference, which starts on Wednesday.

Sunak's spokesman told reporters this week that "getting all the right people around the table to discuss this important issue" represented "an enormous achievement in itself".

The summit will be held at a deliberately symbolic location: Bletchley Park, where top British codebreakers cracked Nazi Germany's "Enigma" code, helping to hasten the end of World War II.

It is also the home of the National Museum of Computing, home to the world's largest collection of working historic computers.

From smartphones to airports, AI is already ubiquitous in everyday life, but its progress has accelerated in recent years with the development of frontier technologies such as the ChatGPT conversational robot.

"It's clear to me that what's going to happen in this year, in these next two, three years, in 200 years, (is that) historians will have a name for this period," Aldo Faisal, an AI and neuroscience professor, said at a briefing this month.

While the potential of AI raises many hopes, particularly for medicine, its development is seen as largely unchecked.

In his speech, Sunak warned AI did have the potential to destroy thousands of jobs in various sectors, including the arts and media, alongside cyber, disinformation and fraud threats.

He stressed the need for countries to develop "a shared understanding of the risks that we face", which is currently lacking.

Harris, von der Leyen, Guterres and Meloni have all confirmed their attendance, but the lack of world leaders, particularly from G7 countries, has dominated discussion of the summit in Britain.

Sunak's spokesman insisted "the right group of countries, the right businesses" would be present.

China will be present, but it is unclear at what level.

Beijing's invitation has raised eyebrows amid heightened tensions with Western nations and accusations of technological espionage.

Sunak has said "there can be no serious strategy for AI without at least trying to engage all of the world's leading AI powers".

Although the UK sees itself as the driving force behind international cooperation on AI, its emphasis on potential disasters has dismayed some players in the sector.

They would prefer to stress existing AI issues, such as a lack of transparency in the models designed by companies and their racial or gender bias, rather than the more alarmist fears noted by Sunak.

Detractors have also noted that the common ethical principles that the UK wants to establish are also likely to come up against the interests of AI labs and tech giants, which are predominantly Chinese and American.

That could limit the likelihood of anything meaningful emerging from this week's summit.

Hamed Haddadi, professor of human-centred systems at Imperial College London's department of computing, said the time was right for global "dialogue" on AI.

"Do we need regulation in this space? Or do we let the market and the business take care of it and whatever see what happens next?" he said.

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