Opinion

AI's threat to democracy and labour looms large. UK's 'doomsday' AI summit is poised to make things worse

Governments have been captured by Big Tech, says actor and filmmaker Alex Winter. It's impossible for them to protect their citizens

Alex Winter speaking on stage. He has criticised the AI Safety Summit

Director Alex Winter speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center on in New York City. Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch

The UK government is holding an AI Safety Summit starting on Tuesday. With prime minister Rishi Sunak at the helm, it’s being touted as a global event that will tackle the serious challenges raised by the rapid acceleration of AI models and set the course for innovation worldwide.

But the focus of the summit, and who has and has not been invited to take part, is poised to make things worse, not better, by allowing the harms to remain unchecked and stifling innovation. 

There are two fundamental problems with this summit that suggest its aim is not genuine progress: the first is that the guests are mainly from tech companies like Google, who aren’t financially or philosophically incentivised to police themselves, much less allow for regulation that potentially weakens their power. Not invited to the summit are the type of world-leading experts in tech, labour and law who are not employed by Big Tech and who are often critical of these companies. These experts are best positioned to speak to practical and actionable concerns around AI, craft meaningful regulation and carve a pathway for equitable innovation. But their voices won’t be heard at the summit.

Given that this misguided approach has been the issue with much of the government response to the rise of Big Tech generally, and AI specifically, one would not be remiss to assume that creating performatively loud and ultimately toothless policy is intentional. It’s important to understand that world governments have been captured by Big Tech and their unmatched donating and lobbying power. This presents a conflict of interest that has been glaring in many of the attempts at regulating the internet and in several of the AI summits thus far. This includes the recent summit held in the US, which was a closed-door affair that primarily hosted the most powerful tech companies, and this conflict is present in the upcoming conference in the UK. 

It’s the job of government leaders to serve their constituents, but it’s impossible to protect citizens from the harms and unethical practices of the very companies that the government is beholden to. That’s a big and systemic problem. And leads to the second issue with the UK summit; its framing of the challenges of AI around doomsday rhetoric, a narrative widely dismissed in serious technology circles and known to be a diversionary tactic to stifle meaningful criticism of more realistic and immediate problems with the rise of AI. 

These very real challenges include the threat to the workforce from an unregulated AI space. There already exists an unfriendly culture towards the labour force. Companies like Google, Amazon and Meta are not supportive of marginalised groups and the working classes, and are engaged in highly unethical union-busting practices towards their labourers. AI will only accelerate the ability of these companies to create cost-cutting technology that eliminates jobs. 

There are significant issues surrounding biases in AI models that target women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups and their use to propagate disinformation and other dangerous forms of propaganda that undermine democracy. But by focusing on hyperbolic apocalyptic scenarios, the greater public is rendered passive and overwhelmed, and the highly profitable status quo is maintained: entrenched power remains untouched.

There’s a general belief among tech experts and activists that we slept on the last 20 years, allowing the unchecked rise of a handful of tech monopolies that will fight hard to retain power. Policy summits that are outwardly, intentionally impractical, like the one held in the UK, are a stark example of how most government leadership is unfit to enact change. At least until they are replaced by new leaders who grew up online, better understand the technologies at play, and have been more directly impacted by the harms. It’s tragic and unnecessary that there will be more bloodshed and economic devastation before we see meaningful progress.

It’s on all of us not to sleep on the next 20 years. Big Tech knows they’re under increased scrutiny, that the average citizen, their paying customer, is beginning to wake up to their harms and unethical business practices.

But the leaders of these companies also know that, generally, the public doesn’t understand the details of these technologies or how to create safe and equitable tools and methods. Which is not helped by corporations promoting obfuscating, erroneous language designed to prevent them from having to take actions that could reduce their profits.

Like the doomsday narrative around AI, the outcry that any moderating of online content, no matter how harmful, is technically impossible and a violation of free speech, and the outright lie that these companies don’t actively promote and monetise propaganda and conspiracy theories.

That’s why the People’s AI Summit is essential, among other initiatives that hold Big Tech and governments to account. It’s vital that those experts, not in the pocket of tech corporations, and who understand the challenges, help educate the public to make them tech and internet-literate. The core remedies include how to address inherent biases in AI, awareness of the hyper-realistic forms of AI-generated propaganda and misinformation that are already proliferating, and better understanding content-moderation and what the tech companies can achieve, if forced, to remove harmful online content without violating free speech.

There are practical and effective ways forward, and this knowledge needs to be consistently imparted to the public in an open and honest forum. It’s why I’m proud to be taking part in the People’s Summit alongside world-leading experts and activists in the tech space. This initiative aims to communicate a clear and transparent message about the legitimate issues and uses around AI so that average citizens are better armed to play a role in their future.

Alex Winter is an actor and filmmaker. His most recent documentary The YouTube Effect is available now. He was an outspoken advocate in the writers’ strike about the Hollywood AI writers deal.  

The People’s Summit for AI Safety – An Urgent Conversation On AI’s Clear and Present Dangers, takes place on Monday 30 October at 3pm. Tune in through The Citizen’s YouTube channel

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