You’re not selling this!
So said UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he was granted a public audience with the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, supposedly the climax of two days of worthy AI-centric endeavor, but in reality one of the most cringe-worthy displays of political desperation to bask in the inherited glow of supposed modernity.
It’s hardly unusual for politicians to pop up at enterprise tech events as guest speakers. These tend to be people who are currently outside of or retired from public office - see Obamas, B&M or Clintons, B&H as useful cases in point - although sometimes not. This year’s Dreamforce, for instance, had an interesting ‘fireside chat’ with Gavin Newsom, current Governor of California.
That last is a good exemplar of how these things can work, with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff interviewing Newsom on a range of topics. That, I naively assumed, was how this Sunak/Musk session, billed as a conversation, would be formatted. I was wrong.
This was the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the role of chat show host, while Musk offered up random opinions to Sunak, who was clearly in a state of ‘squeeeee!-ness’ as he told his guest:
We feel very proud, very excited to have you…You are known for being such a brilliant innovator and technologist.
Again, that ‘fanboy for tech ‘ element isn’t new. Tony Blair had it very badly when he was PM. It’s the driving need that burns in national leaders to deliver ‘their legacy’. What will he or she be remembered for? And tech is always a promising option - in theory. Let’s overhaul the NHS and make it a tech-enabled envy of the world! Blair said yes to that idea on the back of an hour long briefing. The end result years later was a multi-billion pound fiasco that ranks as the biggest UK public sector IT project failure in history. (So far.)
Same old, same old
This was always going to be a risky stunt to pull off at the end of the otherwise pretty focused AI Safety Summit. Certainly not many chances were being taken for things to go wrong. A few journalists were allowed in the room at Lancaster House in London, but only on the understanding that they kept their mouths shut and didn't try to ask any questions! And it wasn’t going to be streamed live on Musk’s ‘Company Everyone Still Calls Twitter’. As one hack asked Sunak earlier, was this because no-one could trust him not to say something outrageous?
As it was, long-time Musk watchers pretty much got the same old, same old doled up in a vaguely reheated form. He’s been one of the most rabid ‘robots under the bed’ armageddon pedlars for years, long before the current generative AI hype cycle - or as as he pitched himself, “something of a Cassandra”, the foreteller of doom for the mythical city of Troy.
Nothing has changed on that front as he warned an awe-struck Sunak that the machines really are coming to get us:
A humanoid robot can basically chase you anywhere. It’s something we should be quite concerned about. If a robot can follow you anywhere, what if they get a software update one day, and they're not so friendly any more? We've got a James Cameron movie on our hands. There is a safety concern. At least a car can't chase you into a building or up a tree.
I’ve seen that movie, was the response from Sunak, while Musk wittered on about the need to have a ‘kill switch’ for these rampaging automata in order to protect the human race.
There were some more serious notes struck, as Sunak talked about the threat of Deep Fakes on elections and democracy around the world:
I have already had a situation with a doctored image. Next year we have elections in India, the US, Indonesia, probably here. An enormous proportion of the world population is voting. Next year will be the first time that this has been an issue. It is mission critical to work out how to deal with this.
It’s a problem, acknowledged Musk, but frankly seemed more amused than anything at the ability to generate hundreds of fake personas online at very low cost. Meanwhile the UK audience was more interested in Sunak seeming to suggest a General Election timescale...
There was also the inevitable “AI’s impact on jobs’ angle, with Musk cheerfully predicting that everyone would be out of a job, unless they needed one for personal fulfilment:
There will come a point where no job is needed. You can have a job if you want to have a job for personal satisfaction, but the AI can do everything.
I’m someone who believes work gives you meaning.
Given his current poll rankings and a General Election looming, a new job might well be something on Sunak’s mind. One of the attendees at Bletchley this week was Nick Clegg, once UK Deputy Prime Minister, now Meta’s Head of Global Public Affairs (aka Zuckerberg’s Apologist-in-Chief). Perhaps Musk might need someone to find meaning in a similar role at the 'Company People Are Still Going To Call Twitter Whatever He Says'?
Unlike many politicians, Sunak is a technophile. It’s striking that given how reliant he is on stilted prepared mantras around ‘delivering for the British people’ when interviewed about the latest disaster to strike his year-old Administration, when talking at the Summit and fielding questions around AI, there was a confidence and understanding of the subject not usually seen. You certainly wouldn’t get that from his 49 day predecessor in office or from her predecessor Boris Johnson, who’d most likely be erroneously bumbling on about Daleks not being able to climb stairs - cripes!
But Sunak totally failed to challenge Musk or push back on the billionaire in any way. He might, for example, have challenged him on his reposting of a cartoon mocking the AI Safety Summit just hours before this on-stage bromance session:
Was Musk sighing at the cartoonist being cynical or at the idea of the Summit itself? Let's be charitable and assume it's the former, it's still a typically Musk thing to do with unhelpful timing.
But this was an unedifying spectacle. It’s hard to imagine Mrs Thatcher back in the day sitting down on stage with Alan Sugar in similar circumstances, quipped one person on social media. It’s a ludicrous comparison in so many ways, and yet….
At the end of the day, Sunak got his ‘celebrity AI’ Summit climax he clearly wanted, but it was an ending that, as feared, overshadowed the genuine achievements of the week. That’s a huge, huge shame.