Rishi Sunak’s vanity jamboree on AI safety lays bare the UK’s Brexit dilemmas

Who is the more trustworthy custodian of machines capable of diverting the course of human civilisation: Elon Musk or the Chinese Communist party? Will it be the billionaire megalomaniac tycoon who meddles in international crises as if they were video games loaded on to his personal propaganda console? Or the authoritarian superpower that likes digital technology best when it enables more efficient and ruthless social engineering and political repression?

Neither is the answer – and thankfully, other options are available. But asking the question in starkly polarised terms illuminates the challenge posed by artificial intelligence that is evolving faster than any effort to bring it under responsible supervision.

Everyone can agree that there should be rules because nobody wants awesome computational capability to fall into the wrong hands. But nobody can settle on what the jurisdiction should be, nor agree on how tightly even safe hands should be bound.

Rishi Sunak has a plan to make Britain the global hub of tech regulation guided by a world-leading AI safety institute. To assert the UK’s credentials for that role, the prime minister is hosting a two-day international summit at Bletchley Park.

Musk will be there. Also, much to Downing Street’s gratification, he will take part in a special dialogue with the prime minister to be broadcast on X, formerly Twitter, summing up the conference conclusions. No such honour is afforded to representatives of the Chinese government, who will also be present, despite objections by hawkish Tory MPs who see Beijing as a hostile power to be contained.

Sunak’s view is that China is already a global player in AI, so the dialogue is incomplete without them. Not unreasonably, No 10 will claim the summit as a success if it produces any kind of memorandum that carries Chinese and American signatures.

Sunak wanted Joe Biden to come, but has to look grateful that the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, is attending instead. Other notable dignitaries include the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and UN general secretary, António Guterres. But heads of government are in short supply. Italy’s prime minister will be there, but the president of France and the German chancellor had other plans.

There will be enough political muscle and technological expertise in the room to make the event notable as a contribution to global discussion but not, as Sunak had originally hoped, a definitive one.

In that respect, the summit reflects Britain’s uneasy post-Brexit strategic position. The prime minister’s grownup diplomacy earns him constructive engagement from international allies, but they haven’t forgotten how his predecessors forfeited their country’s reputation for serious government.

Sunak’s contributions to the debate about AI safety will be heard respectfully. His assertion of Britain’s credentials as an intermediary power in the field – behind China and the US, ahead of other European countries – is not a fantasy. The problem comes with the attempt to parlay that position into regulatory leadership. Here, the banal force of Brexit gravity comes into play.

Sunak’s instinct is abstinence from hasty, heavy-handed interventions for fear of suffocating enterprise and investment. But even if the UK devises rules that are lighter of touch and smarter than anything conceived in Brussels, the size of the continental single market will still induce tech companies to conform to European norms.

The US will do its own thing, as it always does, except when there is a compelling economic or political motive to compromise with jurisdictions of equivalent market heft, which Britain is not.

On Monday, before Sunak’s jamboree had even begun, the White House published a sprawling executive order on AI security covering, among other things, consumer protection, data privacy, mandatory sharing of private companies’ safety tests with the federal government and mitigation against discrimination by algorithms. Equivalent European law is in train.

The forum where transatlantic consultation and potential alignment happens is the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, from which Britain is excluded.

There is also a G7 process, the Hiroshima framework, which is meant to define parameters for safe AI development among the world’s richest democracies. Sunak’s anglocentric ambitions aren’t incompatible with that agenda, but they risk looking otiose and eccentric. There is a whiff of self-aggrandising Brexit exceptionalism – the vision of sovereign Britain as a nimble, autonomous trade superpower – that nobody outside the fringe cult of Conservative Euroscepticism took seriously before the referendum made it government policy.

That was a cosy delusion in more benign times. It is dangerously inadequate in the context of cascading global crises, when so many of the certainties and institutional norms of international relations passed down from the 20th century feel dangerously obsolescent.

Russia is committed to a violent restoration of Soviet borders. War in the Middle East threatens to spiral outwards into a vast regional conflagration. There is a plausible prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House next year, and even if he fails, a Republican party moulded in his image cannot be trusted to uphold basic principles of constitutional democracy at home, nor favour them in alliances abroad. This is a world in which strategic freelancing is not an option for Britain, and concerted realignment with old European allies looks inevitable.

But that is not a judgment Sunak is equipped to make. His party would never allow it on ideological grounds and, on that score, he represents more continuity with the recent past than is implied by the cultivation of diplomatic pragmatism.

While the contrast with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson is undeniable, there is a certain flimsiness about Sunak’s style of governing that is not so far removed from the ways of his predecessors. It is the earnest declaration of intent to be substantial in ways that, on closer examination, never contain actual substance.

The planned livestream chat with Musk is a case in point. It implies deference to the glamour of big tech that is inappropriate to the ostensible mission of an AI safety summit. It is trading in Silicon Valley celebrity at a table where democratic accountability should be the dominant currency.

There is something about the whole event that feels too conspicuously geared towards engineering a legacy for the prime minister as a man of global standing. Palpable craving for that kind of recognition makes it less available. Leaders do not get to self-certify as international statesmen, and especially not in advance of any achievement.

Besides, in the worlds of business and diplomacy there is mounting confidence that Britain is nearing regime change. As the incumbent leader of a G7 country, Sunak can still draw an international crowd. But when it comes to investment of political capital, he is a wasting asset.

It must be hard for the prime minister to accept that the greatest service he can perform for his country now is to facilitate the stable transition to a different government, and that his best hope of a creditable write-up in history is to wear his transience with dignified modesty. Of course, he won’t see it that way. He wants to be remembered as a leader with depth and gravitas. And yet he seems unable to cast off the look of a lightweight splashing in the political shallow end.

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