AI Summit not the place for human rights, says French finance minister

The UK AI Safety Summit was “not the right place” to discuss the human rights records of the countries involved, according to French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, despite government commitments made at the event to create artificial intelligence (AI) systems that respect human rights.

In the opening hours of the Summit, all 28 participating governments and the European Union (EU) issued a joint communique (known as the Bletchley Declaration) on the risks and opportunities of the technology, affirming the need for an inclusive, human-centric approach to ensure its trustworthiness and safety.

The non-binding declaration also recognised that “the protection of human rights, transparency and explainability, fairness, accountability, regulation, safety, appropriate human oversight, ethics, bias mitigation, privacy and data protection needs to be addressed”.

Responding to a question from Computer Weekly about how seriously the declaration’s commitments around human rights should be taken given the poor human rights records of some signatories, the French finance minister – whose government will be hosting another AI Summit in 2024 – said: “I think it’s not the right place to dispute about human rights and the situation in each country that relates to human rights and respect for human rights.

“I think that today, the key purpose was to define a fair regulation for the future of AI, avoiding the most significant risks that can be associated with AI…I think that all European countries are fully abiding by the rule of law and by the rule of human rights, this is our purpose.”

Asked by another reporter about the inclusion of China at the summit – which was widely regarded as a diplomatic success among attendees – and whether it’s possible to coordinate with its government given its human rights record, Le Maire said: “It depends if you want to be efficient or not.” He added that everybody needs to be on board to find a way forward with AI.

“I think that it was a fair and wise decision…it has been the constant position of the French government to engage China and to keep the door open to common work and a cooperation,” he said.

“We are talking about maybe the most significant technological revolution over the decades. Putting China beside would be a mistake. Trying to build together is always a better solution.”

However, China is not the only country that signed the Bletchley Declaration that has been criticised over its human rights record. Other signatories, including Turkey, Israel, Saudia Arabia, the Philippines, UAE, Brazil, the US and the EU, have also had issues with their records highlighted by human rights campaigners, as well as government bodies such as the US State Department and the Council of Europe.

Speaking to a room of reporters on the final day of the AI Summit, Le Maire added the “timely, useful” meeting of governments, private AI companies and civil society organisations at Bletchley Park was “a very positive achievement for prime minister Rishi Sunak”.

He further described the gathering of so many disparate voices around the same table as the crowning achievement of the summit, and stressed the importance of ongoing international collaboration around AI safety ahead of the next AI Summits to be held in South Korea and France.

“We have to show some humility while addressing this question,” he said. “Nobody knows what the future of artificial intelligence will be. Nobody really knows what the risks on the longer term might be. This is why it is so the important to be together – the private companies and the states – to think about that regulation, and to put in place the first pillars of that regulation.”

Echoing the consensus among attendees that AI firms can no longer be left to mark their own homework, Le Maire further warned against the technology becoming concentrated in the hands of a few private companies in a few different countries.

He also outlined the importance of creating risk-based, pro-innovation AI regulation that would create the conditions for a “European OpenAI” to emerge, and stressed the importance of inclusion as a key principle guiding further collaboration.  

He added that innovation must precede regulation, and that – in line with his concerns around concentrations of power – “we need to have our own artificial intelligence built on the local model”.

In a press conference at the end of the AI Summit, Sunak said while it is only the beginning of the conversation, “I believe the achievements of this summit will tip the balance in favour of humanity because they show that we have both the political will and the capability to control this technology and secure its benefits for the long term.”

Invoking Stephen Hawking’s claim that AI will either be the best or worst thing to happen to humanity, he added that if international collaboration round AI can be sustained, “I profoundly believe that we can make it the best, because safely harnessing this technology could eclipse anything we have ever known.”


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