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China is planning to attend the UK’s summit on artificial intelligence at Bletchley Park next month, according to British and Chinese officials, despite recent controversy over alleged spying by Beijing in Westminster.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has envisaged the AI summit as an opportunity to gather global policymakers and tech executives to set out an international approach to governance of the fast-emerging technology.
Two Chinese government officials told the Financial Times that China has decided to send at least a representative to the summit. UK officials also said Beijing had accepted London’s invitation to attend the summit.
The diplomatic challenges of bringing Chinese delegates together with western leaders, at a time when Washington is tightening controls on Beijing’s access to AI technology, had made China’s participation uncertain.
Sunak has faced criticism from internal Conservative party critics for inviting China to the summit even after news emerged last month that a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. The researcher has denied the claim.
James Cleverly, the UK foreign secretary, has said the government could not “keep the UK public safe from the risks of AI if we exclude one of the leading nations in AI tech”.
The two-day summit begins on November 1 at the second world war codebreakers’ hub Bletchley Park outside London. UK officials said they were expecting China to attend on both days.
One of the Chinese officials said Beijing might “change mind at any time” over attending given Washington’s efforts to squeeze China’s access to chip technologies that underly AI development, and criticisms from some British and European politicians over China’s attendance.
China has not yet confirmed publicly who it is sending to the event. The country’s foreign ministry did not comment on China’s attendance but said it “supports strengthening international co-operation on global governance of artificial intelligence”.
Downing Street said it was for China to comment on its attendance of the summit.
Tech investor Matt Clifford and former senior diplomat Jonathan Black, who have been representatives of Sunak for the summit, went to Beijing in the summer to discuss shared objectives for the event and possible wording for a joint communique with their Chinese counterparts. They have held similar meetings with representatives from other nations.
Meanwhile, Sunak told ministers on Tuesday to always talk up the opportunities of AI whenever they speak about its potential risks in the run-up to the summit.
Downing Street said Sunak told his cabinet it was important to manage the risks of AI “so that we can reap its benefits as a powerful tool for good, improving lives, boosting productivity, delivering better public services and growing our economy”.
Sunak is pinning his hopes on AI to help raise productivity in the public sector at a time of highly stretched public finances. He has asked John Glen, Treasury chief secretary, to produce a report on the issue as part of next month’s Autumn Statement.
UK government officials said that Mel Stride, work and pensions secretary, briefed colleagues on how AI could be used to reduce benefit fraud, while other ministers made similar pitches.
On the day before the summit begins, several UK secretaries of state will make simultaneous announcements on AI advances in their fields, including healthcare and defence, according to a UK official.
The Bletchley Park event will focus on so-called “frontier AI”, a sophisticated form of AI that includes large language models that can process and generate huge amounts of data.
Products created by big tech groups such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard incorporate this technology.
The UK government has focused much of its attention on the potential threats to national security, such as cyber attacks or the ability to use AI to design bioweapons.
Discussions at the summit will incorporate some of these topics, as well as the future direction of AI development, election disruption, the spread of misinformation and how AI could exacerbate global inequalities.
As well as a joint communique on the risks posed by AI, the UK aims to use the summit to provide detail on the creation of an AI Safety Institute, which would bring together other countries to assess the national security implications of new technologies.
Additional reporting by Lucy Fisher and Madhumita Murgia in London