GCHQ chief’s warning to ministers over risks of AI

Sir Jeremy Fleming gave ministers a ‘clear-eyed’ analysis of the ‘potential applications and risks’

Dominic McGrath
Tuesday 18 April 2023 18:58 BST
Sir Jeremy Fleming
Sir Jeremy Fleming (PA)

GCHQ chief Sir Jeremy Fleming has warned ministers about the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI), amid growing debates about how to regulate the rapidly developing technology.

Downing Street gave little detail about what specific risks the GCHQ boss warned of – but said the update was a “clear-eyed look at the potential for things like disinformation and the importance of people being aware of that”.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak used the same Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to stress the importance of AI to UK national security and the economy, No 10 said.

A readout of the meeting said ministers “agreed on the transformative potential of AI and the vital importance of retaining public confidence in its use and the need for regulation that keeps people safe without preventing innovation”.

“The prime minister concluded Cabinet by saying that given the importance of AI to our economy and national security, this could be one of the most important policies we pursue in the next few years which is why we must get this right,” the readout added.

Asked if the potential for an existential threat to humanity from AI had been considered, the PM’s official spokesperson said: “We are well aware of the potential risks posed by artificial general intelligence.”

The spokesperson said Michelle Donelan’s science ministry was leading on that issue, but the government’s policy was to have “appropriate, flexible regulation which can move swiftly to deal with what is a changing technology”.

“As the public would expect, we are looking to both make the most of the opportunities but also to guard against the potential risk,” the spokesperson added.

The government used the recent refresh of the integrated review to launch a new government-industry AI-focused task force on the issue, modelled on the vaccines task force used during the Covid pandemic.

Italy last month said it would temporarily block the artificial intelligence software ChatGPT amid global debate about the power of such new tools.

The AI systems powering such chatbots, known as large language models, are able to mimic human writing styles based on the huge trove of digital books and online writings they have ingested.

Mr Sunak, who created a new Department for Science, Innovation & Technology in a Whitehall reshuffle earlier this year, is known to be enthusiastic about making the UK a “science superpower”.

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