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Artificial intelligence poses a “bracing test” to the multilateral system, the UK government has warned, as it seeks to align countries including China behind its vision for regulating the technology’s “societal-scale” risks.

Speaking to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and foreign secretary James Cleverly defended Britain’s decision to invite China to an AI regulation summit initially described as including only “like-minded countries”.

Dowden said the UK was still “working through” the exact nature of China’s participation in November’s summit at Bletchley Park, a base for British codebreakers during the second world war, but added: “I don’t think we can have meaningful multilateralism without engaging with China.”

In a speech to the UN on Friday, Dowden said the challenge of unleashing AI’s potential while limiting its risks would change relations between nations and require “a new form of multilateralism” because of the “country-sized influence” wielded by some technology companies and non-state actors.

“The AI revolution will be a bracing test for the multilateral system,” he told the UN, adding that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Dowden told the FT he was “totally clear about the national security implications of China” but had held “positive conversations” over its involvement in the summit. There would be obvious differences between the UK and countries with “less liberal democratic models”, he said, but these should not invalidate engaging with them. 

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has faced a backlash from sections of his own Conservative party over his government’s policy of engagement with China since the recent revelation that a parliamentary researcher was arrested in March on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

Cleverly also defended the principle of engagement, however. “We can’t pretend China is not going to be active in these issues,” he said: “This is going to be a global issue. Both its positives and potential negatives. So inevitably, it’s going to demand a global response, which the UK is very much leading.”

Dowden said governments should not repeat the mistakes they had made in regulating social media sites too slowly as online safety risks proliferated. “That cannot happen here,” he said. “We cannot do it after the event with AI; that option doesn’t exist.”

The UK was confident that its “Frontier AI” task force, created in June with £100mn in government funding, could evolve to become “a permanent institutional structure, with an international offer”, Dowden said.

With Sunak among the world leaders staying away from New York, Dowden and Cleverly were the most senior UK representatives to the UN General Assembly and the Climate Week events running alongside it. 

Dowden rejected criticisms from several Climate Week participants of Sunak’s relaxation of several of the UK’s climate change targets, including a five-year delay to a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars.

“I find that people are very reassured that the UK remains committed to net zero by 2050,” he said. “But there’s also . . . an understanding that in the domestic situation in the United Kingdom, we have to be mindful about the impact of measures on our citizens.”

“I think if you really believe in making sure that you tackle climate change, you have to bring your own citizens with you,” Dowden said: “And the way you bring people with you is to have a pragmatic, not a dogmatic, approach to this.”

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