UK charts post-Brexit path with AI strategy

Digital minister says the government's plan is to keep regulation 'at a minimum.'

UK charts post-Brexit path with AI strategy

The U.K. wants the world to know that unlike in Brussels, it will not bother AI innovators with regulatory drama. 

While the EU frets about risky AI and product safety, the U.K.’s AI strategy, unveiled on Wednesday, promised to create a “pro-innovation” environment that will make the country an attractive place to develop and deploy artificial intelligence technologies, all the while keeping regulation “to a minimum,” according to digital minister Chris Philp. 

The U.K.’s strategy, which markedly contrasts the EU’s own AI proposed rules, indicates that it’s embracing the freedom that comes from not being tied to Brussels, and that it’s keen to ensure that freedom delivers it an economic boost.

In the strategy, the country sets outs how the U.K. will invest in AI applications and help other industries integrate artificial intelligence into their operations. Absent from the strategy are its plans on how to regulate the tech, which has already demonstrated potential harms, like the exams scandal last year in which an algorithm downgraded students’ predicted grades.

The government will present its plans to regulate AI early next year. 

Speaking at an event in London, Philp said the U.K. government wants to take a “pro-innovation” approach to regulation, with a light-touch approach from the government.

“We intend to keep any form of regulatory intervention to a minimum,” the minister said. “We will seek to use existing structures rather than setting up new ones, and we will approach the issue with a permissive mindset, aiming to make innovation easy and straightforward, while avoiding any public harm while there is clear evidence that exists.”

Despite the strategy’s ambition, the lack of specific policy proposals in it means industry will be watching out for what exactly a “pro-innovation” policy will look like, according tech lobby TechUK’s Katherine Holden.

“The U.K. government is trying to strike some kind of healthy balance within the middle, recognizing that there’s the need for appropriate governance and regulatory structures to be put in place… but make sure it’s not at the detriment of innovation,” said Holden. 

Break out, or fit in?

The U.K.’s potential revisions to its data protection rules are one sign of what its strategy entails. The country is considering scrapping a rule that prohibits automated decision-making without human oversight, arguing that it stifles innovation.

Like AI, the government considers its data policy as an instrument to boost growth, even as a crucial data flows agreement with the EU relies on the U.K. keeping its own data laws equivalent to the EU’s. 

A divergent approach to AI regulation could make it harder for U.K.-based AI developers to operate in the EU, which will likely finalize its own AI laws next year. 

“If this is tending in a direction which is diverging substantially from EU proposals on AI, and indeed the GDPR [the EU’s data protection rules] itself, which is so closely linked to AI, then we would have a problem,” said Timothy Clement-Jones, a former chair of the House of Lords’ artificial intelligence liaison committee.

Clement-Jones was also skeptical of the U.K.’s stated ambition to become a global AI standard-setter. “I don’t think the U.K. has got the clout to determine the global standard,” Clement-Jones said.  “We have to make sure that we fit in with the standards” he said, adding that the U.K. needs to continue to work its AI diplomacy in international fora, such as at the OECD and the Council of Europe. 

In its AI Act, the European Commission also sets out a plan to boost AI innovation, but it will strictly regulate applications that could impinge on fundamental rights and product safety, and includes bans for some “unacceptable” uses of artificial intelligence such as government-conducted social scoring. The EU institutions will be far along in their legislative work on AI by the time the U.K. comes out with its own proposal. 

“Depending on the timeline for AI regulation pursued by Brussels, the U.K. runs the risk of having to harmonize with EU AI rules if it doesn’t articulate its own approach soon,” said Carly Kind, the director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, which researches AI and data policy. 

“If the UK wants to live up to its ambition of becoming an AI superpower, the development of a clear approach to AI regulation needs to be a priority,” Kind said.  

How is global thinking on AI shaping the world, from Berlin, Brussels, London and beyond? In POLITICO’s weekly AI: Decoded newsletter, our AI correspondent cuts through the noise, introduces you to the key decision-makers you’ve never heard of and tells you what those in power don’t want you to know. Sign up today. 

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Biden tries to calm waters with Macron in submarine scrap

Joint statement after phone call offers warm words but not much action.

Biden tries to calm waters with Macron in submarine scrap

U.S. President Joe Biden tried to cool a diplomatic blow-up with French President Emmanuel Macron Wednesday, conceding Washington should have consulted Paris over an Indo-Pacific security pact that enraged France.

In a joint statement after a phone call between the two leaders, the United States also offered further language intended to placate Paris. It said Biden would meet Macron in Europe next month, backed French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific and supported greater European defense capabilities.

The call between the two presidents took place a week after Australia announced it was pulling out of a multi-billion dollar submarine supply deal with France and forming a new security and technology-sharing pact with the United States and Britain, which would include the construction of U.S. submarines.

The move, a response to Chinese military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, sparked a diplomatic crisis as it infuriated the French government, which accused its U.S., Australian and British allies of a stab in the back. France took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, threatened to torpedo EU-Australian trade negotiations and pushed for the postponement of EU-U.S. talks on technology and trade.

As part of Wednesday’s efforts to calm the waters, Macron agreed the French ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Étienne, would return to Washington next week, the joint statement said.

Importantly for France, the statement conceded the United States should not have left France in the dark about the security pact — although that concession was more explicit in the French version of the text. It said the two leaders “agreed that open consultations between allies on questions of strategic interest for France and European partners would have allowed this situation to be avoided.”

The White House version stated only that “the situation would have benefitted” from such consultations.

“The two leaders have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures toward common objectives,” the White House statement also said, adding that Biden and Macron’s meeting next month was intended “to reach shared understandings and maintain momentum in this process.”

While French officials will welcome the warm words from the United States, it is unclear whether any of them will be backed up with actions, such as new programs or financial commitments.

Biden reaffirmed “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region,” including recognizing EU’s strategy for the region, published on the day of the announcement of the new three-way security agreement, known as AUKUS. That partnership was interpreted in Paris as an attempt by Washington to crowd France and the EU out of the Indo-Pacific.

Biden also recognized “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense” — a key priority for Macron. But that declaration came with an important caveat, making clear that such an effort should contribute “positively to transatlantic and global security” and be “complementary to NATO.”

While French officials insist greater European defense capability would not weaken NATO, some other European allies and NATO officials argue it could undermine the transatlantic alliance.

Finally, Macron got explicit reassurance from Biden on continued U.S. support to France’s counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa. American military intelligence support has been crucial for France’s operations, but there have been doubts about whether the U.S. would continue to provide it.

The AUKUS pact has also frayed already strained relations between the U.K. and France.

Asked by reporters while visiting the U.S. if he could understand why the French were so upset, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “It’s just one of those things, there are no easy ways of having these conversations. It’s a very human thing to delay the conversation until the last possible moment, I don’t know if anyone’s been in that situation in their emotional life, but it’s very human to put it off.”

He added: “I think everybody has been a bit taken aback by the strength of the French reaction and we all want to reach out, everyone wants to reach out to Paris and try to sort something out.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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