Sunak branded ‘out of touch’ for saying people should give up pay to start firms

3 November 2023, 08:04

Rishi Sunak shakes hands with Elon Musk
AI safety summit. Picture: PA

The Prime Minister made the comment during a conversation with tech billionaire Elon Musk at the close of the AI Safety Summit.

Rishi Sunak has been accused of being “out of touch” after suggesting people should be more willing to give up regular pay and “be comfortable with failure” to start their own companies.

The Prime Minister said he wanted to “transpose” the entrepreneurial culture of “places like Silicon Valley” to the UK during a talk with tech billionaire Elon Musk.

The Stanford-educated banker-turned-politician was speaking to the controversial X owner in front of an audience of business chiefs at London’s Lancaster House on Thursday to close the Government’s artificial intelligence (AI) summit.

The 50-minute interview included warnings by Mr Musk of humanoid robots that “can chase you anywhere” and a prediction that AI will make paid work redundant.

Mr Sunak agreed when the tech entrepreneur said the UK needed a “mindset change” towards a culture that celebrates creating new businesses.

“How do you transpose that culture from places like Silicon Valley across the world where people are unafraid to give up the security of a regular pay cheque to go and start something and be comfortable with failure?” the Prime Minister said.

“You’ve got to be comfortable failing and knowing that that’s just part of the process.”

He said it was “a tricky cultural thing to do overnight”, but “an important part of creating” an environment that breeds start-up companies.

Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth said: “How out of touch is Rishi Sunak?

“After 13 years of the Tories, the public are enduring the worst cost-of-living crisis in memory and he is spending his time telling Elon Musk that he wishes they would give up their jobs and be ready to fail.

“He hasn’t got a clue.”

The conversation saw a jacketless Mr Sunak throw softball questions to Mr Musk, whom he described as a “brilliant innovator and technologist”.

It came after the Prime Minister wrapped up a two-day gathering of politicians and experts from around the world with an agreement by tech firms not to release AI models until their safety has been tested.

Asked about his stance on AI’s impact on the workplace, Mr Musk told Mr Sunak “there will come a point where no job is needed” and the only reason people will work will be for their own satisfaction.

He described AI as “the most disruptive force in human history” and likened it to a “magic genie” capable of granting limitless wishes that will usher in an “age of abundance”.

“One of the future challenges will be how do we find meaning in life if you have a magic genie that can do everything you want?” he said.

Mr Musk also raised concerns over Terminator-style robots turning on humans, stressing the need for an off switch to put the machines into a “safe state”.

“A humanoid robot can basically chase you anywhere,” the tech tycoon said in the talk, which was not broadcast live but was later streamed on his social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.

“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?”

The Prime Minister said “we’ve all watched” movies about robots that end with them being shut off.

Mr Musk also spoke of AI’s potential to provide “companionship”, saying it could “know you better than anyone, perhaps even yourself”.

“You will actually have a great friend,” he said, adding that one of his sons has “some learning disabilities and has trouble making friends”.

“An AI friend would actually be great for him.”

AI safety summit
Rishi Sunak and Elon Musk spoke in a casual interview in front of tech leaders at Lancaster House (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA)

The tech boss supported Mr Sunak’s controversial decision to invite China to his AI summit, saying: “If they’re not participants, it’s pointless.”

He also appeared to back the UK’s approach to AI regulation, using a sporting analogy: “If you look at any sports game, there’s always a referee.”

Mr Sunak returned to Whitehall for the conversation with the Tesla chief after the AI Safety Summit held at Bletchley Park, the home of Allied codebreaking during the Second World War.

At a press conference concluding the event, the Prime Minister said the summit would “tip the balance in favour of humanity” after reaching an agreement with technology firms to vet their models before their release.

Conservative peer Lord Ed Vaizey criticised the inclusion of Mr Musk, who he said had “destroyed” Twitter, as a “pathetic gimmick”.

The former culture secretary was equally scathing about Mr Sunak interviewing him, telling Sky News: “The Prime Minister’s playing the Mini-Me to Elon Musk.”

By Press Association

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