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UK summit aims to tackle thorny issues around cutting-edge AI risks

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BLETCHLEY PARK, England — Digital officials, tech company bosses and researchers are converging Wednesday at a former codebreaking spy base near London to discuss and better understand the extreme risks posed by cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

The two-day summit focusing on so-called frontier AI notched up an early achievement with officials from 28 nations and the European Union signing an agreement on safe and responsible development of the technology.

Frontier AI is shorthand for the latest and most powerful general purpose systems that take the technology right up to its limits, but could come with as-yet-unknown dangers. They’re underpinned by foundation models, which power chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard and are trained on vast pools of information scraped from the internet.

The AI Safety Summit is a labor of love for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a tech-loving former banker who wants the U.K. to be a hub for computing innovation and has framed the summit as the start of a global conversation about the safe development of AI. But U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris may divert attention Wednesday with a separate speech in London setting out the Biden administration’s more hands-on approach.

She’s due to attend the summit on Thursday alongside government officials from more than two dozen countries including Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia — and China, invited over the protests of some members of Sunak’s governing Conservative Party.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is also scheduled to discuss AI with Sunak in a livestreamed conversation on Thursday night. The tech billionaire was among those who signed a statement earlier this year raising the alarm about the perils that AI poses to humanity.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and executives from U.S. artificial intelligence companies such as Anthropic, Google’s DeepMind and OpenAI and influential computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, one of the “godfathers” of AI, are also attending.

In all, more than 100 delegates were expected at the meeting held at Bletchley Park, a former top secret base for World War II codebreakers that’s seen as a birthplace of modern computing.

As the meeting began, U.K. Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan announced that the 28 countries and the European Union had signed the Bletchley Declaration on AI Safety. It outlines the “urgent need to understand and collectively manage potential risks through a new joint global effort.”

South Korea has agreed to host a mini virtual AI summit in six months, followed by an in-person one in France in a year’s time, the U.K. government said.

Sunak has said the technology brings new opportunities but warned about frontier AI’s threat to humanity, because it could be used to create biological weapons or be exploited by terrorists to sow fear and destruction.

Only governments, not companies, can keep people safe from AI’s dangers, Sunak said last week. However, in the same speech, he also urged against rushing to regulate AI technology, saying it needs to be fully understood first.

In contrast, Harris will stress the need to address the here and now, including “societal harms that are already happening such as bias, discrimination and the proliferation of misinformation.”

Harris plans to stress that the Biden administration is “committed to hold companies accountable, on behalf of the people, in a way that does not stifle innovation,” including through legislation.

“As history has shown in the absence of regulation and strong government oversight, some technology companies choose to prioritize profit over the wellbeing of their customers; the security of our communities; and the stability of our democracies,” she plans to say.

She’ll point to President Biden’s executive order this week, setting out AI safeguards, as evidence the U.S. is leading by example in developing rules for artificial intelligence that work in the public interest. Among measures she will announce is an AI Safety Institute, run through the Department of Commerce, to help set the rules for “safe and trusted AI.”

Harris also will encourage other countries to sign up to a U.S.-backed pledge to stick to “responsible and ethical” use of AI for military aims.

A White House official gave details of Harris’s speech, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss her remarks in advance.

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Lawless reported from London.

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