Catching Top Talent By Setting Them Loose

Catching Top Talent By Setting Them Loose

In an effort to retain the best and brightest of its talent and capitalize on their creativity, Google is launching an internal startup incubator. According to The Information, the incubator, dubbed “Area 120,” will enable Googlers who present compelling business plans to work full-time on innovative new ventures with the goal of turning them into independent companies with Google as a major investor. The move appears to be an expansion of Google’s longstanding policy of letting employees devote 20 percent of their time to side projects, with the company’s approval: Signature products like Gmail, Google News, and AdSense began as such projects.

If the labor market is increasingly talent-driven these days, nowhere is that more true than in Silicon Valley, where a shortage of skilled tech workers means that top talent commands top dollar. The retention concerns motivating Area 120 were thrown into relief earlier this month when Regina Dugan, the former DARPA chief who led Google’s Advanced Technology And Products team since 2012, left the company to lead Facebook’s competing skunkworks division, with the equally sci-fi name “Building 8.”

If Google is hoping to retain creative geniuses by giving them more independence to develop and market their own ideas, Elon Musk’s billion-dollar nonprofit OpenAI is luring them in with the chance to give them away for free. In a new, in-depth feature about the project, Wired writer Cade Metz notes that OpenAI has managed to grab some of the best minds in the AI field despite aggressive efforts by competitors to poach them—and not by outbidding, either:

When some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies caught wind of the project, they began offering tremendous amounts of money to OpenAI’s freshly assembled cadre of artificial intelligence researchers, intent on keeping these big thinkers for themselves. … OpenAI didn’t match those offers. But it offered something else: the chance to explore research aimed solely at the future instead of products and quarterly earnings, and to eventually share most—if not all—of this research with anyone who wants it. That’s right: Musk, Altman, and company aim to give away what may become the 21st century’s most transformative technology—and give it away for free. …

That’s the irony at the heart of this story: even as the world’s biggest tech companies try to hold onto their researchers with the same fierceness that NFL teams try to hold onto their star quarterbacks, the researchers themselves just want to share. In the rarefied world of AI research, the brightest minds aren’t driven by—or at least not only by—the next product cycle or profit margin. They want to make AI better, and making AI better doesn’t happen when you keep your latest findings to yourself.