‘Terminator-style’ loss of control is biggest AI risk, Technology Secretary says

2 November 2023, 14:54

Michelle Donelan
AI safety summit. Picture: PA

Michelle Donelan was speaking on the second day of the AI Safety Summit.

Losing control of artificial intelligence (AI) is the biggest concern around the computer science, the Technology Secretary has said.

Michelle Donelan said a Terminator-style scenario was a “potential area” where AI development could lead but “there are several stages before that”.

The Technology Secretary was speaking to Times Radio from the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, where ministers have convened governments from around the world alongside tech firms and civil society to discuss the risks of the advancing technology.

On the loss of control concern – which has been a topic of discussion in private sessions at the summit – Ms Donelan said: “That is a risk that is much more hypothetical in nature, that naturally is the one that I am most concerned about because it is the one that would result in the gravest ramifications.”

Put to her that was the “Terminator scenario” – a reference to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film where machines take over the world – she said: “Well, that is one potential area where it could lead but there are several stages before that.”

Asked about such a threat as he arrived at the summit on Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “we can’t be certain” about the risks of AI but there is a possibility they could be on a similar scale to pandemics and nuclear war.

However, he said it is important not to be “alarmist” because the debate is ongoing.

Asked whether a Terminator-style rise of the machines is possible, he said: “People developing this technology themselves have raised the risk that AI may pose and it’s important to not be alarmist about this. There’s debate about this topic. People in the industry themselves don’t agree and we can’t be certain.

“But there is a case to believe that it may pose a risk on a scale like pandemics and nuclear war, and that’s why, as leaders, we have a responsibility to act to take the steps to protect people, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Mr Sunak held a flurry a bilateral meetings with United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni after arriving in Bletchley.

Ms Meloni said she was “proud of (her) friendship” with her UK counterpart and hopes they work together on artificial intelligence (AI) to “solve the biggest challenge that maybe we have in this millennium”.

Following the meetings, he sat down for a roundtable discussion with figures including Kamala Harris and Ms Meloni, telling the US vice-president that her country’s executive order on AI, signed just days before the summit, was “very welcome in this climate”.

US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have not attended the gathering, though Downing Street has denied it is being snubbed by world leaders.

Mr Sunak told representatives AI offers “transformative” change that can improve economies and societies, but added: “As with all new waves of technology, AI brings new fears, new dangers – from social harms like bias and disinformation to the most extreme risks of all.

“As leaders we have a responsibility to address that, so I want to thank you all for agreeing the Bletchley Park communique – the first-ever international statement on the nature of these risks.”

Turning to the vice-president he said: “Kamala, your executive order just this week is a deep and comprehensive demonstration of the potential of AI and it’s very welcome in this climate.

“I wanted us to have a session to talk about this issue as leaders with shared values in private and hear from all of you about what you’re most excited about, what you’re concerned about and how we can look back in five years’ time on this moment and know that we made the right choices to harness all the benefits of AI in a way that will be safe for our communities but deliver enormous potential as well.”

While attending the gathering on Wednesday, Elon Musk said AI was “one of the biggest threats” humanity faces and that it was “not clear to me if we can control such a thing” when for the first time, humans faced “something that is going to be far more intelligent than us”.

Elon Musk at the AI Safety Summit
Elon Musk at the AI Safety Summit (Leon Neal/PA)

Ms Donelan said the Government has a responsibility to manage the potential risks, but also said AI offered “humongous benefits”.

Speaking to GB News, she said: “We have convened countries across the globe, companies that are working in this space producing that cutting-edge AI and also academics, scientists, experts from all over the world to have a conversation and work out, ‘OK, what are the risks?’

“How can we work together in a long-term process so that we can really tackle this and get the benefits for humanity, not just here in the UK, but across the globe?”

She compared it to the international effort required to tackle climate change.

“We thought that actually what we need to do is work collaboratively with the rest of the world.

“I compare it to climate change – if we just do our own work in a silo, it won’t have the same impact.”

It comes after the first day of the summit saw delegations from around the world, including the US and China, agree on the so-called “Bletchley declaration” – a statement on the risks surrounding the technology to be used as the starting point for a global conversation on the issue.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he arrives at the AI Safety Summit
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he arrives at the AI Safety Summit (Justin Tallis/PA)

On Thursday, the Prime Minister will host meetings with 27 countries, tech firms and civil society groups.

Ahead of those meetings, Mr Sunak said the world owes it to younger generations to grip the risks of AI “early enough”.

“I believe there will be nothing more transformative to the futures of our children and grandchildren than technological advances like AI,” he said.

“We owe it to them to ensure AI develops in a safe and responsible way, gripping the risks it poses early enough in the process.”

He added that the task of monitoring the risks posed by AI could not be left to tech firms alone.

He warned companies could not be left to “mark their own homework” in an interview with the BBC, against a backdrop of concerns about the technology’s potential capabilities.

By Press Association

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