AI Talent Is Scarce, but Just How Scarce Is It?

AI Talent Is Scarce, but Just How Scarce Is It?

Last year, the Montreal-based startup Element AI estimated that there were fewer than 10,000 people worldwide with the necessary skills to design artificial intelligence/machine learning systems, but the Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent Holdings later estimated the total number of AI researchers and practitioners at between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

Element AI came out with a new estimate on Wednesday, Jeremy Kahn reports at Bloomberg, putting the number of AI specialists with recently-earned PhDs at 22,000, of whom 3,000 are looking for work. With less restrictive parameters, however, the total number of AI experts could be four times greater:

Element AI said it scoured LinkedIn for people who earned PhDs since 2015 and whose profiles also mentioned technical terms such as deep learning, artificial neural networks, computer vision, natural language processing or robotics. In addition, to make the cut, people needed coding skills in programming languages such as Python, TensorFlow or Theano.

There’s another subset of about 5,000 people at the cutting edge of AI research who are publishing papers and presenting at academic conferences, the report said. By removing the restriction that the person’s PhD must have been awarded since 2015, Element AI said there were at most 90,000 people in the world with the right skill set – a figure that was much larger than their other estimates but still well below Tencent’s.

Because AI and machine learning are emerging technologies requiring a number of highly advanced skills, it’s no surprise that the talent pool is relatively tiny (even the high end of Tencent’s estimate is a fraction of global tech talent). As new applications for AI are discovered, demand for this type of expertise is growing and is likely to far outpace supply for years to come. AI is beginning to be taught at the undergraduate and master’s level in universities, Element AI’s CEO Jean-Francois Gagne tells Kahn, but these programs will take time to make an impact on the talent shortage.

Because talent is so scarce and so valuable, another issue that has arisen in the AI talent market is the hoarding of experts by large, rich companies that can afford to pay them enormous salaries. AI specialists, both PhD graduates and non-PhDs with just a few years’ experience, can earn $300,000 to $500,000 a year or more in salary and stock awards. The ability of tech giants to lure experts with these outsize pay packages has led to concerns that this will ultimately hinder the growth of the talent pool by leaving universities with fewer specialists to teach the next generation of graduate students, as universities can’t match the rewards available in industry.