For once, Rishi Sunak was actually having a pretty good few days. Despite the obvious jokes about the UK’s most robotic prime minister in history holding a summit on the risks to humanity from artificial intelligence, the event had been going quite well.
The mix of invitees was better than expected, having senior representation from the US and China present seemed to have paid off – despite a bit of a public upbraiding from Kamala Harris on not focusing on the immediate dangers of AI – and the AI Safety Network agreed at the event seems a genuinely respectable document.
For once, Rishi Sunak was set to be able to chalk something up in his very lonely “wins” column. So, naturally, he had to throw Elon Musk into the mix.
On his best days, Musk brings a trademark vibe of recently-divorced-uncle-with-problematic-politics-at-the-dinner-party to any occasion – so mixing it with a prime minister who rarely looks comfortable in any setting was always going to be high risk.
But the event itself was just far weirder than anyone expected. Until the moment the discussion between Sunak and Musk began, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that Sunak – the PM of the world’s sixth-largest economy, and a nuclear power with a permanent UN Security Council seat – was going to be the interviewer. Nor that he’d be such an obvious fanboy of an incredibly divisive and mercurial billionaire.
Not that it was referenced in the overly cosy on-stage interview, but Musk had insulted Sunak and his summit very publicly shortly before the men’s joint appearance. He posted a cartoon suggesting the whole event was kayfabe (a term used to describe the staged ‘fights’ in pro wrestling) as each nation – the UK included – simply raced to develop AI capabilities faster than the others.
Sunak’s obvious delight to meet Musk could not be faked: it was clear this was a genuine case of a fan meeting their idol. One suspects this was why this ill-judged ‘chat’ went ahead: no sane communications professional would let a PM appear so obviously the subordinate in a public appearance if they could possibly stop it.
The pseudo-cynical view is Sunak wanted to do the event as part of a jobs fair for himself, showing he could be the next politician to follow in Nick Clegg’s footsteps and become a Silicon Valley exec.
This doesn’t quite pass the smell test: looking too keen in public is a big turn-off, while Musk himself is too erratic to repay the favour of a fawning interview – and too contentious for another exec to pick up a Musk fanboy. Sometimes the simple explanation is the best one: Sunak did this very silly event because he desperately wanted to do it.
The actual discussion itself was mostly asinine. Musk announced that it would be a better idea if killer robots had “physical off switches” than if they didn’t – hard to disagree. He suggested that AI would mean all jobs became optional within a few decades – a huge prediction, if it wasn’t one that had been made every decade about some technology or other for a century.
For AI nerds, Musk echoed an observation made by many people on the ‘safety’ side of the discussion – that opening up models fully to the public through open source (which is how much of the internet works) might not bring the benefits people hope, because you can look through the full code of most software, but AI is still a black box. (This was an observation noted in a Demos thinktank paper I co-authored ahead of this week’s summit).
Inevitably, though, it was Rishi Sunak who managed to make the most tonally stupid remark of the entire panel, in which he lamented that too many people were unwilling to give up the security of a salary in order to take the risk of creating a start-up, even if it was likely to fail.
We should note that people who are able to do this are those with a good safety net if it goes wrong, and Sunak leads a government that has consistently cut away at the welfare safety net upon which those of us who don’t possess vast independent wealth rely.
But the remark was sillier than that: who in the UK could be more conspicuously clinging on to a salary rather than taking their chances on the market than Rishi Sunak, an egregiously unpopular PM leading an even more unpopular government, who is clinging on to hold the election as late as he possibly dares?
As ever, when analysing Rishi Sunak, the simple answer is best: he is just not very good, at all, at politics.