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Banning China from the UK’s AI summit would make no sense, writes former head of GCHQ’s national security centre CIARAN MARTIN


The Prime Minister trod a difficult line in yesterday’s landmark speech on Artificial Intelligence.

On the one hand, he was right to downplay fears that the technology might bring about the apocalypse. Rishi Sunak understands that, despite the hysterical warnings of some Silicon Valley gurus, we shouldn’t fear killer robots enslaving or extinguishing our species.

Instead, as he pointed out, AI is revolutionary – and that revolution brings opportunities, especially in medical research and making our economy more productive.

But it undoubtedly brings risks, too. And as head of cyber security at GCHQ for seven years, I learned to appreciate them.

As Sunak outlined yesterday, AI could help rogue states unleash new cyber-attacks with unprecedented penetration, design devastating biochemical weapons and generate vast amounts of disinformation that hostile nations could use to undermine their enemies’ politics.

Some of this process is already under way. A parliamentary election in Slovakia last month was mired in controversy after a ‘deepfake‘ audio file emerged only 48 hours before the vote.

Ciaran Martin, former head of GCHQ's national security centre

Ciaran Martin, former head of GCHQ’s national security centre

The Prime Minister trod a difficult line in yesterday¿s landmark speech on Artificial Intelligence

The Prime Minister trod a difficult line in yesterday’s landmark speech on Artificial Intelligence

Highly convincing, it purported to record the leader of the main liberal party hatching a plot with a newspaper journalist on rigging the election.

Challenges like these are only going to become more common – which is why Rishi Sunak is right to address them at next week’s international summit on AI at Bletchley Park.

As the PM acknowledged, some members of his party will be dismayed at the invitation being extended to China, a totalitarian state that has long held ambitions to outdo the West in this area.

Beijing already deploys more than 500 million surveillance cameras nationwide – more than half the world’s total – and this, combined with AI-powered facial-recognition software, is transforming life for ordinary Chinese people in frankly dystopian ways.

China has developed and used ‘gait-recognition’ software, in which cameras can distinguish individuals’ walks and body shapes even when their faces are obscured.

Minority groups such as the Uyghurs are persecuted in the regime’s internment camps, watched by overseeing eyes.

And even lavatories are no longer private, as some public conveniences will dispense loo roll only to those who pass a facial- recognition scan.

Mr Sunak is being commendably hard-headed, despite these abuses. Excluding China from a conference on AI would make no sense. Beijing will develop advanced AI whether it comes to Bletchley Park or not – whatever we might think about it.

Chinese absence from the conference would mean that there could be no genuinely global framework for managing the biggest risks posed by the technology.

At present, even states with powerful cyber capabilities think twice before unleashing computer viruses that could cause a devastating worldwide IT meltdown. The consequences are simply too unpredictable.

But a terrorist group would likely have no such compunction. And AI, which may well come to write computer code far better than any human, could certainly make this job easier for them. China’s leaders are nothing if not calculating: they have no more interest in allowing terrorists to exploit dangerous technology than we do. So a realistic approach is needed.

There is a lesson from history here.

Some 40 years ago, when the internet was in its infancy created, its early pioneers failed to predict that people would intentionally take advantage of the network they were creating to commit serious crime.

We pay the price of that complacency on a daily basis with cyber-attacks and other online harms.

By gathering world leaders together at the dawn of a new digital age, Rishi Sunak is trying to ensure that we don’t make the same mistake.



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