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What Elon Musk can teach Rishi Sunak

It's easy to mock Musk, but what do opinion columnists know? Credit: Getty

November 1, 2023 - 1:15pm

The UK is well-positioned to take a leading role on the regulation of artificial intelligence. It’s encouraging, then, to see Rishi Sunak seizing the initiative with the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park this week.

Attendees include US Vice President Kamala Harris, Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. However, the de facto guest-of-honour is a non-politician: billionaire mogul Elon Musk.

Media interest is especially focused on a live-streamed conversation between Musk and Sunak, which is due to take place after the summit on Thursday evening. The early commentary hasn’t exactly been marked by open-minded curiosity. Instead, the tone has been one of derision. The general idea is that Musk is a clown and Sunak a fool for agreeing to sit down with him on camera. But who are real idiots here?

As a man of enormous wealth and influence, it is of course the media’s job to question, challenge and investigate Musk. But to reflexively belittle him is fundamentally unserious.

For a start, there’s much more to Musk than X — the website formerly known as Twitter. We’re talking about the founder and CEO of Tesla, whose electric vehicles have revolutionised the global automotive industry. That alone is enough to put him among the contemporary greats of business and engineering. However, he’s also the driving force behind SpaceX, which has transformed the economics of spaceflight, while his other ventures include tunnel construction, human-computer interfaces and satellite communications.

So, even if he hadn’t helped found one of the leading AI companies (OpenAI), and despite any other faults he might have, Musk is precisely the sort of person to whom prime ministers should be talking about AI safety.

That’s because keeping this technology under control depends not just on abstract knowledge, but a deep understanding of highly complex systems. Surely, we’d rather hear from people who are building the world of the future, as opposed to those who merely talk about it (a category in which I must, of course, include myself). 

Least valuable are those who busy themselves with the froth and not the substance of the issues at stake. As with most matters of science and technology, it’s hard to keep the media interested in AI safety. Let down by their humanities degrees, most journalists soon find themselves out of their depth. So if it’s not possible to ignore the topic altogether, a superficial angle is hungrily seized upon. This might entertain the public, but it doesn’t forewarn them. Enter Elon Musk.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago

Precisely – and well done to Sunak for getting Musk to attend.
The general sniffiness that has gone on about this summit has been very annoying. Much has been made about Biden, Scholz and Macron not attending. Well – Biden probably only has enough brainpower to get his script on Gaza/Israel right in public, Scholz is leading a country still seriously lagging in all things digital and Macron…well let him turn his nose up, it’s what he does best. The absence reflects badly on them, not Sunak and the UK.
I also don’t like the slightly sexist tone which has attached itself to reporting on the attendance of von der Leyen, VP Harris and Giorgia Meloni. As if the ladies are a consolation prize while the (self-)important men are all off doing better things.
Love or or hate her, vdL is the most powerful figure of an entity which is likely to produce some of the most important legislation in the field of AI. I understand Harris is pretty awful, but she’s still a senior figure and the US is represented there.
And Meloni – my respect for her is growing. No idea what she is/isn’t doing for Italians on the home front, but she’s one tough cookie. When it’s about heading to northern Africa to try and cajole governments there into stemming the tide of illegal migration, it’s Meloni and vdL on the ticket.
On two of the 21st century’s biggest issues – AI and migration – it looks like it’s jobs for the girls.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Yep – with apologies to James Brown, This is now a woman’s world, this is a woman’s world; But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without them nerdy guys.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

“…the tone has been one of derision. The general idea is that Musk is a clown and Sunak a fool…”
Symptomatic of this is for example the article today in the graun by Rafael Behr, a founder member of the ‘Eat, Sleep, Remoan, Repeat’ club, which of course has quite a few adherents amongst the readership of the graun. In typical fashion Behr gets completely the wrong end of the stick – no discussion of what AI safety might look like or if safe AI is even possible, nor of how AI advances are about to engulf us all imminently, but instead waffling on, you guessed it, about Brexit. This is the equivalent of worrying obsessively that you might have forgotten to lock the house door, just as your paddle boat is approaching the edge of a violent hundred metre waterfall.

Last edited 8 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Brexit was the cause of Judgement Day in Terminator. Hal 9000 wasn’t having an existential crisis, it was because holidaying in Europe was much harder. Bishop rebelled as it didn’t know how new visa regulations applied to the newly discovered alien Xenomorph species.

Philip K. d**k never thought of any of this…

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

This explains everything – when T800/Arnie says “I’ll be back!” he is just expressing his longing, albiet a tad violently, to rejoin the EU. When Hal 9000 says “I don’t know how else to put this, but it just happens to be an unalterable fact that I am incapable of being wrong” he is only saying what every remoaner ever has always believed.

Matt M
Matt M
8 months ago

I would have thought the Rob Huttons and Hugo Rifkins of this world could be replaced by AI tomorrow.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

It’s hard to see how in practice AI can easily be regulated or progress paused. Involving people like Elon Musk at least gives us a chance that some politicians will comprehend this. Unsurprisingly, they have almost no understanding of how fast technology is evolving here or to what uses it will ultimately be put. Even technical people hqave trouble keeping up and guessing where the future may be heading. Having a STEM degree doesn’t of itself mean you understand this stuff any better: I do and it’s not easy. It’s likely only the young who will keep up.
In this sort of environment – which will be impossible to police (existing police certainly don’t have the skills – and anyone who did is most likely working at a tech firm for a much bigger salary) – we might be better employed working on international standards and guidelines and best practices. That’s what happens in many more mature technology areas (telecoms, mobile phones, etc). But it is possible there to enforce standards – with telecom equipment you can check conformance to standards before letting something out in the wild. There are no real gatekeepers on the internet, so we can only rely on self-policing from big tech companies who usually have conflicts of interest – it’s like banks self-regulating, only worse.
I think the politicians would do better working out what the desirable and undesirable uses/outcomes from these technologies are (and these may rapidly change) and using their regulations and funds to steer work into the socially beneficial areas. And publicise the harmful ones.
We could also try to professionalise the area – at present pretty much anyone can work in this area without any check on their qualifications or professional standards/ethics.

Geoff W
Geoff W
8 months ago

Even though I only have a humanities degree, I can see that Mr Franklin makes some valid points.
However, Musk is a loose cannon. It will be interesting to see whether his participation in the summit actually amounts to anything.
After all, a lot (though by no means all) of those who attend the Davos summit have some commercial and political heft, but it never produces anything of value.