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NEW DELHI — With the clock likely ticking on his time in Downing Street, Rishi Sunak wants to secure a legacy on the world stage. The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be just what he needs.
The British prime minister faces a general election next year with his Conservative Party languishing 18 points behind the Labour opposition in the polls.
But though Sunak told reporters travelling with him to the G20 leaders’ summit in India this weekend he was “entirely confident” he can still win re-election, U.K. government insiders say the PM already has one eye on his possible post-Downing Street legacy.
Sunak takes pride in how he has helped repair the U.K.’s diplomatic standing after the rancour of Boris Johnson’s premiership and Liz Truss’ brief but disastrous stint in power. He sees the Windsor Framework — the agreement on post-Brexit trade checks in Ireland which markedly improved U.K. relations with the EU and the U.S. — as his signature achievement so far.
Now the bigger prize in Sunak’s sights is the opportunity to position the U.K. as the leading authority on the governance of AI.
“He sees it as one of his long-term legacy pieces,” one government adviser told POLITICO. “Shaping the world’s response to a paradigm-shifting technology would be a big deal — and it would be recognized as a big deal.” A second government official said Sunak “never misses a chance” to bring up AI.
There are several existing international forums for governments to discuss AI regulation, including a G7 process and the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council. Sunak’s challenge is to convince countries to take the U.K. seriously as a place to bring existing initiatives together and fold in unrepresented countries. And that will require some skillful diplomacy.
From G20 to AI summit
Sunak used conversations with other world leaders at the G20 to drum up interest in his landmark AI safety summit, which is taking place in the U.K. in November. The invitation list has yet to be made public, but is expected to include a range of countries including China.
The prime minister told POLITICO en route to New Delhi: “So far, the response we’ve had has been really positive, people are really keen to participate and they recognize that the U.K. can play a leadership role in AI.”
At a technology-focused session of the summit on Sunday the PM made comments on the need to develop AI responsibly. He praised India for “bringing AI to the top of the agenda at the G20” and said that there was “an opportunity for human progress that could surpass the industrial revolution in both speed and breadth.”
He told leaders that first and foremost, the development of AI had to be done safely to manage risks. “This requires international cooperation,” he said. “The U.K. will be hosting the first ever international AI Safety Summit in November to help drive this forward.”
Sunak added that the technology must also be developed securely “to protect the digital economy from malevolent actors and states” and fairly to “ensure inclusivity.”
“Getting this right is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our age,” Sunak said. “Let’s work together to make sure we all benefit.”
But to make Sunak’s summit a success — and help secure his legacy — he will be reliant on the buy-in and active participation of fellow world leaders.
Despite Sunak congratulating his host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a successful summit, the G20 was noteworthy for the absence of powerful figures including China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Sunak will be hoping to avoid similar ‘no shows’ at his AI summit. He has already been dealt a blow with news last month that U.S. President Joe Biden will not be attending.
Key European leaders have also failed to confirm their attendance. In comments to POLITICO, one French official questioned the need for U.K. mediation, given alternative international avenues for discussing AI.
Sunak’s experience at the G20 also demonstrates the difficulties of choreographing the good optics and effective diplomacy required for a successful summit.
Predictions from U.K. government figures that Sunak would be mobbed by the adoring public did not materialize in a locked-down New Delhi where there were few people on the streets.
There were also hiccups in Sunak’s summit agenda. He had been due to meet Modi at his house on Friday but that was replaced with a 20-minute meeting on the margins of the summit on Saturday. On Friday night Modi hosted President Biden for dinner instead. The two leaders held talks for about an hour.
A planned business reception for Sunak on Friday at the British High Commission was also cancelled, because of transport issues. Sunak’s spokesperson said rescheduling was “part and parcel” of any summit.
Things did improve over the weekend for the British PM. Modi and Sunak were filmed bear-hugging each other when they met. According to the U.K. government’s readout, Modi “noted the warm reception” Sunak had had in India, and the pair had agreed to continue moving towards a free trade agreement “at pace.”
The Indian government said Modi has now formally invited Sunak for a bilateral visit, after POLITICO reported that U.K. officials were already drawing up plans for a possible return trip for Sunak later this year.
Additional reporting by Vincent Manancourt.