Is the AI Talent War Causing Academic Brain Drain?

Is the AI Talent War Causing Academic Brain Drain?

Artificial intelligence expertise is one of the hottest commodities in the talent market today, and large, wealthy tech companies are taking the lead in hiring the best minds in AI, to the point of raising concerns about smaller firms being unable to compete. Just last month, Microsoft Ventures launched a fund dedicated to investing in AI startups and Uber bought a small AI startup to turn into its in-house research lab.

While the startup scene is one important source for these AI hires, universities are another. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that tech giants were poaching AI experts from academia at such a rate as to raise concerns that this hiring frenzy might jeopardize the growth of the AI talent pool by leaving behind a shortage of teachers for the next generation:

The share of newly minted U.S. computer-science Ph.D.s taking industry jobs has risen to 57% from 38% over the last decade, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Though the number of Ph.D.s in the field has grown, the proportion staying in academia has hit “a historic low,” according to the Computing Research Association, an industry group.

On the other hand, Lauren Dixon adds at Talent Economy, the high technology industry has been moving toward a less secretive approach to AI development, with projects like OpenAI aiming to democratize the field. That increased openness was necessary to attract star academics into the private sector, and because of it, their employment at private companies may not hinder the free exchange of knowledge as much as some fear:

Most company research has been kept secret due to competition. In December 2016, Apple moved from that secretive approach to a more open one. “To attract the best and the brightest, including from academia, it was not attractive for a lot of people to go there and do stuff that would be in secret,” [Missouri S&T professor Daniel] Tauritz said. This trend has encouraged companies to allow their staff to publish, which he added helps with the brain drain from academia’s research.

Aside from the knowledge base that AI academics provide companies, they also help create longer-term forecasts than what’s typically popular in business, Tauritz said. Rather than seeing short-term monetary gains as a motivator, they think in long development cycles, which helps with innovation.