Bletchley Declaration draws cautious approval

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends the Welsh Conservative Party Spring Conference 2023
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The UK, US, European Union (EU), India and China are amongst 28 countries and governments to sign up to the Bletchley Declaration on AI safety, announced on 1 November at the UK's AI Summit.

The agreement recognises that so-called frontier AI technology, such generative AI chatbots and image generators, has “potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional". It outlines three key areas of risk: Cybersecurity, biotechnology, and disinformation.

It says risks are best addressed through international cooperation, with participating nations agreeing to work together to support a network of scientific research on AI safety.  

"This is a landmark achievement that sees the world’s greatest AI powers agree on the urgency behind understanding the risks of AI – helping ensure the long-term future of our children and grandchildren," said UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.

"The UK is once again leading the world at the forefront of this new technological frontier by kickstarting this conversation, which will see us work together to make AI safe and realise all its benefits for generations to come."

The agreement has received tentative approval from the UK tech sector, with Rashik Parmar, CEO of BCS, saying that it takes a more positive view of the potential of AI than expected.

"I’m also pleased to see a focus on AI issues that are a problem today – particularly disinformation, which could result in personalised fake news during the next election – we believe this is more pressing than speculation about existential risk," he added. 

"The emphasis on global cooperation is vital to minimise differences in how countries regulate AI."

Amanda Brock, CEO of OpenUK, said the agreement will need hard practicalities baked in, and is calling for the open source software and open data business communities to be included.


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"Their input will help to appropriately shape the transparency called for in the Declaration alongside the internationally inclusive, collaborative cross border research and innovation and international co-operation in an open manner," she said.

Joseph Thacker, researcher at SaaS security firm AppOmni, was less confident, however.

"The biggest challenge is that the open source ecosystem is really close to enterprises when it comes to making frontier AI," he said. 

"And the open source ecosystem isn't going to adhere to these guidelines – developers in their basement aren't going to be fully transparent with their respective governments."

The Bletchley Declaration isn't the only game in town, though. US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo used the summit to announce a new US-led international AI safety institute.

Just two days before the conference kicked off, on 30 October, US president Joe Biden signed an executive order, described by the White House as “the most significant actions ever taken by any government to advance the field of AI safety”, requiring AI firms to report the risks their technology could pose.

The EU is already in the process of passing its AI Act and, on the same day Biden signed his executive order, the G7 agreed a set of guiding principles for AI and a voluntary code of conduct for AI developers. 

The challenge, most agree, will be to ensure that future international efforts are focused on practical measures. 

"The test will be seeing cooperation on the concrete governance steps that need to follow," said Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, programme director of AI: futures and responsibility at the University of Cambridge. 

"I hope to see the next summit in South Korea forge a consensus around international standards and monitoring, including establishing a shared understanding of which standards must be international, and which can be left to national discretion," he added.

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.