Scotland’s innovation minister has called for a four nations summit on artificial intelligence (AI) “as soon as possible” amid pressing concerns over the societal impact of the technology.

Richard Lochhead said that he is writing to his UK Government counterpart George Freeman next week to call for an “intensified dialogue” on how AI is regulated across the devolved nations.

Mr Lochhead pointed to the fact that the Scottish Parliament does not have jurisdiction over the regulation of AI, which has sparked global concern since the emergence of generative AI platforms, such as ChatGPT.

Experts including the so-called ‘godfather of AI’, Professor Geoffrey Hinton, who quit his job at Google last month, have warned of the existential threat of the technology, if appropriate safeguards are not developed.

Mr Lochhead said in a debate on AI at the Scottish Parliament: “We have a vision to make Scotland a leader in the development and use of AI in a way that is trustworthy, ethical and inclusive.

“We do therefore need government leadership and regulation to take action as required. But most of these levers in terms of regulation are currently controlled by the UK Government’s data protection, consumer protection, equality, human rights, employer regulations, employment regulations, medical devices regulations, telecommunications, financial services, self-driving cars – they’re all reserved matters to the UK Government.

He added: “We are a bit concerned that current UK Government plans for the hands-off, non statutory regulation of AI will not meet Scotland’s needs. They may be softening on that, given what’s been happening over the last few weeks. And it seems to be in contrast – their response – to the responses of other countries across the world as well.

“We don’t want to create unnecessary red tape. But we do have a duty to clear the right supportive environment for businesses to thrive but also for citizens to be protected.”

Mr Lochhead said: “And to kick start that process, I am proposing that we have a four nation summit on the implications of AI to be held as soon as possible. We also want to ensure that Scotland’s AI strategy needs to evolve to keep up with the accelerating pace of change in AI. Therefore I’m also commissioning the Scottish AI Alliance to lead an independent review setting out what Scotland needs to do now, to maximise the benefits of AI, while we control the risks at the same time.”

The Scottish Parliament held the debate on Trustworthy, Ethical and Inclusive Artificial Intelligence – Seizing Opportunities for Scotland’s People and Businesses on Thursday.

It featured contributions from a range of politicians who spoke about the opportunities and risks of the emerging technology, which has garnered worldwide headlines since the public launch of ChatGPT in November last year.

Mr Lochhead pointed to some of the disruptions that have already been caused by the platform, such as to the education sector, where it has been demonstrated to be able to pass exams equivalent to top-performing students. He cited also the societal risks of AI being harnessed to promulgate “false but convincing information which could undermine democracy”. He also raised the issue of inbuilt biases in the training algorithms behind the technology.

However, there are many upsides. There is already a well-developed AI sector in Scotland, with Edinburgh ranking as the top city outside London in a recent survey of startup companies operating in the field, accounting for 12.3 per cent of firms in AI, digital security and financial technology across the UK.

Scotland also has a well-established National AI Strategy, which pointed to the use of the technology in a way that is ‘trustworthy, ethical and inclusive’. The subsequent establishment of the Scottish AI Alliance is proving to be an effective forum to encourage growth and investment in the sector, said Mr Lochhead. In terms of the companies at the forefront of the technology in Scotland he mentioned Trade in Space – the Edinburgh-based space data firm using satellite data to assess dangerous toxins in crops, IRT, a Dundee company focused on using thermal imaging technology to help housing associations to identify heat loss in homes, and Crover, an Edinburgh firm that has developed a robot that moves through grain siloes to check the health of the crop.

NHS Forth Valley, in collaboration with the Scottish Health and Industry Partnership and the West of Scotland Innovation Hub, has also been working on a novel use of AI in skin cancer detection, to bring detection times to under 25 minutes by 2025, the minister added.

Jamie Halcro Johnston, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow minister for business, trade, tourism and enterprise, said it was vital Scotland takes advantage of the opportunity to develop its AI sector. However he said we must ensure the “right training and skills opportunities are in place”. He said it must also be backed by the right economic environment and infrastructure to support it.

He said: “We still don’t have the connectivity we need with broadband promises missed time and time again, and too many areas still with slow and unreliable services. That needs to change if we were to take full advantage of AI opportunities in communities right across Scotland, not just here in the central belt. And the Scottish Government has said they want to build an AI powerhouse. And again, I share that ambition but we’ve heard that kind of terminology before. We were meant to become a renewables powerhouse, but the jobs that were promised didn’t materialise in the numbers promised.”

Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Fife, said that the fast pace of development for AI systems risks “overwhelming democratic systems” if there is not a global level of cooperation. He agreed that a form of ethical charter like a Hippocratic Oath would be a sensible way to approach AI, but only if governments acted together.

He said: “But we need to understand that even if we sign up, those and other parts of the world might not sign up to that porch, and we still might be affected by it.

“So yes, we we need to make sure everybody’s involved which is why I think an international approach is essential, but the potential to disrupt is considerable. And when we disrupt, we potentially create great inequalities, because if there’s a concentration of knowledge and control that can lead to a concentration of wealth and power. So we’ll need to be agile in thinking about how we respond to that.”

He added: “This could lead to quite significant levels of unemployment, it could lead to great levels of employment. But we need to be prepared to consider how we make sure that people have a basic income to live off, if there is that concentration of wealth. So that fast pace of change, in terms of meeting regulation, also has to be mirrored by the fast pace of change and consideration of the distribution of wealth and opportunity, because this must not lead to greater levels of poverty, this must lead to greater opportunities for us.”