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2-day global AI safety summit begins at a venue near London with a storied past


Computer scientists worry that artificial intelligence, or AI, has the capacity to engineer bioweapons, make the global financial system go haywire and threaten democracy. So governments are moving to regulate it. A two-day global AI safety summit begins today at a venue near London with a storied past. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Never before in all history has the British Empire been so...

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In World War II, the U.K. chose an English country estate called Bletchley Park to house its secret code-breaking operation. This is where some of the Allies' best and brightest mathematicians, including one named Alan Turing, cracked the Nazi's Enigma code and helped win the war.


CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Denniston) Gentlemen, meet Mr. Turing.

FRAYER: Turing's achievements were immortalized in the 2014 movie "Imitation Game." The title comes from a scholarly paper Turing wrote in 1950 asking whether computers could imitate humans.

STEPHANIE HARE: Can machines think with their own consciousness, their own approaches? What if they decided to harm us?

FRAYER: Stephanie Hare is an expert on technology and ethics who's watching as the conversations Turing began at Bletchley Park some 85 years ago resumed today in the same location. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is hosting Vice President Kamala Harris, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and others for an artificial intelligence safety summit. It'll include some frank talk about worst-case scenarios, Sunak says.

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: There is even the risk that humanity could lose control of AI completely. Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority.

FRAYER: Now, some of this may sound like science fiction, but leaders are also focusing on stuff that's already happening because AI is already eliminating jobs. It's already being used, says ethicist Hare, in courts, in medicine, in banking, to make decisions that impact people's lives.

HARE: Most of us don't know that. Maybe we don't get a mortgage that we've applied for. Maybe it's affecting how they read our medical records. Am I interacting with a robot? Interacting with a machine? None of that is explained right now. It's about responsibility and even liability. To be very American about it, who can I sue?

FRAYER: This week, President Biden issued an executive order to create oversight of AI systems. But the U.S., home to the biggest tech companies, is actually behind on regulation, says AI expert Nina Schick.

NINA SCHICK: European Union has been leading the way. Second to that, I would actually put China. Then I'd put the U.S. last. But, you know, the flip side to regulation is innovation. And the companies, the money, the entire ecosystem is dominant in the United States.

FRAYER: So U.S corporate leaders, including Elon Musk and officials from Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft, are participating in this summit too. So is China. But with the EU leading in terms of regulation and the U.S. leading on innovation, plus how opaque China may be in all of this, the U.K. is offering itself up as a neutral leader on AI. But leadership on such a global, amorphous topic is pretty tricky, says political scientist Anand Menon.

ANAND MENON: You see this with the climate crisis. There is broad consensus on the dangers we face, but the fact that those dangers seem, for some people, a little bit remote or a little bit beyond the next election means it's quite hard sometimes to get people to take immediate action.

FRAYER: Whatever politicians and tech leaders conclude on AI this week, it's likely to be sweeping, theoretical and also nonbinding.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, at Bletchley Park outside London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.