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2 November 2023

Voters don’t share Rishi Sunak’s easy-going approach to AI

Their caution is better reflected in Labour’s preference for regulation.

By Freddie Hayward

It’s Rishi Sunak’s big day. He’ll travel to the AI summit at Bletchley Park to host two sessions with allies this afternoon (2 November) – topped off by a chit-chat with self-appointed messiah Elon Musk on his platform X (formerly known as Twitter).

“The UK’s answer is not to rush to regulate.” That was the message Sunak delivered in his speech on artificial intelligence seven days ago. His strategy is to create a regulatory-light environment backed up with government investment to attract the European headquarters of large AI companies. At the same time, the government wants this week’s summit to establish Britain as a world leader on AI regulation. It will be pleased with the “Bletchley Declaration” agreed yesterday – however light-touch the wording is.

No 10 insiders are proud that they have got the major powers to sign the first document of its kind. “Getting the US, EU and China in a room together to even start the conversation on this is incredible,” as one put it. That is a testament to British diplomacy. But it also makes it sound as if post-Brexit Britain’s future is to be the next Geneva, Vienna or Reykjavik – a place where bigger nations come to carve up the world.

Similarly, it is not a disaster that the US has announced it will establish its own AI safety institute. Some suggested this was a snub to the British. On the contrary, greater attention to AI was the aim of the conference and the White House has said the institute will work closely with the British equivalent. But whether through the EU-US Trade and Technology Council or its February announcement on the use of AI in the military or Biden’s extensive executive order on Monday (30 October), the US has been moving towards greater regulation anyway – summit or no summit.

At the same time, the government is under pressure from Labour. The party has this morning announced a tougher position on AI regulation. It wants companies to report to a regulatory body before they train AI models over a certain capability threshold. Sunak’s approach to wait and see how the technology develops is reminiscent of the failure to regulate social media companies in the 2010s and reckless banking practices in the 2000s. In contrast, Labour’s approach – or at least rhetoric, the details remain obscure – better chimes with the timid atmosphere of a country that grew up on I, Robot and the Matrix. Polling from Survation for Luminate suggests 71 per cent of people think tech companies should “prioritise quality and safety, even if it takes longer”, with only 12 per cent of the view that they should pursue “rapid innovation, even if it involves taking risks”.

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The cost of living and the economy will still dominate the next year in politics. The computing power each party will procure is unlikely to titillate voters who can no longer afford a holiday or even pay their bills. But those who are listening might prefer Labour’s caution over Sunak’s entrepreneurial zest.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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