Kamala Harris stakes claim to America being the country to build AI consensus on eve of UK-led AI Safety Summit

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 31, 2023
The UK says it's the leader in AI safety. So does America. The EU's staking a claim here too. How easy is it going to be for everyone to 'play nicely'?


Let us be clear - when it comes to AI, America is a global leader.  It is American companies that lead the world in AI innovation. It is America that can catalyze global action and build global consensus in a way that no other country can. And under President Joe Biden, it is America that will continue to lead on AI. 

So declared US Vice-President Kamala Harris yesterday as a tough new Executive Order on AI was signed by her boss. It tees up an interesting conversation at the AI Safety Summit taking place at Bletchley Park in the UK to which Harris is flying in as the US representative, given that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is proclaiming British leadership in this field - and that’s before the European Union stakes its claim to be in the driving seat. 

For his part, Sunak last week boasted: 

I’m completely confident in telling you the UK is doing far more than other countries to keep you safe…The British people should have peace of mind that we’re developing the most advanced protections for AI of any country in the world, doing what’s right and what’s necessary to keep you safe.

So is it too many cooks? We’ve seen this before so many times in the tech industry. Vendors latch on to a new technology, decide there needs to be a standard or set of standards, all get together and play nicely until said standard is published, then fight like a bag of cats once the time arrives to commercialize the work. 

There will undoubtedly be a lot of polite and politically sensitive compliments bandied around for the next couple of days at Bletchley Park so as not to rock any boats. For her part, Harris commits to co-operation: 

I will travel to the United Kingdom to represent our nation at the Global Summit on AI Safety.  There, we will work with our allies and our partners to apply existing international rules and norms with a purpose to promote global order and stability and, where necessary, to build support for additional rules and norms that meet this moment. 

She then followed that up immediately with the caveat quoted at the top of this article.

US export

Harris also made it clear that the view from the White House lawn is that the US has put in the spade work domestically on AI safety and intends to export that to the rest of the world: 

Before generative AI captured global attention, President Biden and I convened leaders from across our country, from computer scientists to civil rights leaders to legal scholars and business leaders, all to help make sure the benefits of AI are shared equitably and to address predictable threats, such as algorithmic discrimination, data privacy violations, and deep fakes.  

We named it the “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights.” After which, President Biden and I had extensive engagement with the leading AI companies to help ensure the private sector commits to the principles in the blueprint and to establish a minimum baseline of responsible AI practices.

We intend that the actions we are taking domestically will serve as a model for international action, understanding that AI developed in one nation can impact the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world. Fundamentally, it is our belief that technology with global impact requires global action. 

On that last point, Harris is in tune with Sunak’s worldview when he argues: 

Right now, we don’t have a shared understanding of the risks that we face and without that, we cannot hope to work together to address them. That’s why we will push hard to agree the first ever international statement about the nature of these risks…I believe we should take inspiration from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was set up to reach an international scientific consensus…I will propose that we establish a truly global expert panel nominated by the countries and organizations attending to publish a State of AI Science report. 

The climate change example is an interesting one scientifically, but perhaps not so much politically. Never mind the likes of China and India, US right-wingers don’t believe in climate change, so are they really likely to buy into what a bunch of ‘experts’ - foreign ones at that - have to say on AI?  Remember, facts are only facts when we like them!

My take

I’m pretty confident that Sunak will get a statement of support for the global expert panel idea. That’s kind of the easy bit - the press release may well already be written. How that panel then operates, who it reports to, how any recommendations it comes up with are put into action etc etc - not so easy. Nor is where its work would sit in relation to the other organizations and bodies, national and international, who are working on the same issues. 

Meanwhile Sunak has ensured that everything that happens at the Summit over the next two days will be overshadowed by a frankly bizarre decision for the British Prime Minister to be ‘in conversation’ with Elon Musk on the platform formerly known as Twitter. Whoever in Downing Street thinks this is a good idea really needs to have second thoughts. 

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