Sunak clashes with Elon Musk as X boss says AI means we won’t need to work

Rishi Sunak clashed with Elon Musk on the value of having a job after the tech mogul told him artificial intelligence (AI) would mean people would no longer have to work.

The billionaire caused embarrassment for the PM during a discussion on Thursday evening at the end of his AI summit by predicting that the “magic genie” would bring a time when “no job is needed”.

Mr Sunak, under pressure from his own party to get more Britons back into work, asked Mr Musk about “changes in the labour market” – saying the idea of AI stealing jobs was “still a concern”.

But the tech mogul spoke enthusiastically about the idea, saying: “There will come a point when no job is needed.” Mr Musk also told Mr Sunak AI would mean “you can do a job if you want a job … but the AI will do everything”.

“I don’t know if that makes people comfortable or uncomfortable,” the owner of X, formerly known as Twitter, added to laughter among the audience of business leaders at the event in London.

“I’m someone who believes work gives you meaning,” Mr Sunak responded. The PM tried to emphasise the importance of having a job – arguing it would raise questions about “where do you get that drive, that purpose” if AI replaced workers.

Mr Musk joked: “Often I have to enter a suspension of disbelief … burning the 3am oil, I think ‘Why am I doing this, I can just wait for the AI to do this’.”

Dismissing fears that AI would destroy the economy, Mr Musk said there would be an “abundance” of opportunities for new services. “We won’t be on universal basic income, we will be on universal high income,” he said.

Mr Sunak conceded the risk of AI destroying jobs was causing “anxiety”, but said Britons should look at the new tech as a “co-pilot”. He said a “world-class education” system was the best way of helping people adapt to a revolution in the jobs market.

Mr Sunak also told Mr Musk he wants Britons to be more willing to give up “the security of a regular paycheck and be comfortable with failing” to encourage start-ups.

Labour pounced upon the remark. “How out of touch is Rishi Sunak? The public are enduring the worst cost of living crisis in memory and he is spending his time telling Elon Musk that he wishes they would give up their jobs and be ready to fail,” said frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth. “He hasn’t got a clue.”

Rishi Sunak with Elon Musk at post-summit discussion (EPA)
Rishi Sunak with Elon Musk at post-summit discussion (EPA)

Earlier, the Tory leader said AI could be the best thing that ever happened to the human race – claiming the Bletchley Park summit would “tip the balance in favour of humanity”. It came after he had earlier sought to warn people that AI could “pose a risk on a scale like pandemics and nuclear war”.

Mr Musk appeared to ridicule politicians’ two-faced approach to AI shortly before his discussion with Mr Sunak in London – suggesting in a tweet that they were hiding ulterior motives.

The X and Tesla boss shared a cartoon of leaders from UK, US, EU and China saying AI posed a “catastrophic risk” – but were more concerned about developing the tech first.

However, Mr Musk praised the PM for “taking [AI] safety seriously” – having warned himself that it posed an “existential risk”. He told the audience of business leaders: “On balance, AI will be a force for good, most likely.”

He also argued that AI would offer people strong “companionship”. He said some AI robots will “know you better than you know yourself … you will actually have a great friend”. Appearing taken aback, Mr Sunak said he found the idea “surprising”.

Yet the billionaire also warned of the dangers seen in some sci-fi movies – saying “we should be quite concerned” about humanoid robots that “can follow you anywhere”.

Mr Sunak said “we’ve all watched” movies about robots that end with the machines being switched off, saying the importance of an off switch had been discussed at the Bletchley Park summit.

Mr Musk also praised Mr Sunak’s “very good” decision to invite China to the summit. He said the inclusion of Beijing in discussions as “essential”. He also said he welcomed the idea of the government acting as a “referee” when it came to trying to regulate new AI models.

Rishi Sunak and Elon Musk joked about Terminator movies (AP)
Rishi Sunak and Elon Musk joked about Terminator movies (AP)

Earlier, Mr Sunak hailed a “historic” voluntary agreement from tech companies developing “frontier” AI to allow independent testing of the safety of new models.

Grilled by reporters about the failure to create any binding regulatory structure, Mr Sunak said: “Before you start mandating for things and legislating for things … it is important that regulation is empirically based.”

The agreement with AI companies is built on the Bletchley Declaration signed by the US, EU and China on Wednesday. Mr Sunak said countries also agreed to a series of international safety summits – with France and South Korea agreeing to host further summits in 2024.

Mr Sunak held a flurry of bilateral meetings with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Italian PM Giorgia Meloni after arriving in Bletchley on Thursday.

Earlier on Thursday, science secretary Michelle Donelan warned that a Terminator-style scenario – where humanity loses control of the tech it invents – was a “potential area” where developments could lead.

Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has said it would urgently introduce “binding” requirements for companies developing new AI models.

“It is not good enough for our ‘inaction man’ prime minister to say he will not rush to take action, having told the public that there are national security risks which could end our way of life,” said shadow science secretary Peter Kyle.