Sep 14, 2019 - Technology

Immigration policy could handicap the U.S. in the AI talent race

Animated illustration of a circuit board in the shape of an American flag lighting up and then shutting down.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

AI experts are pushing the U.S. to ease immigration policies, arguing that the country is hobbling itself in a critical geopolitical race in which American dominance is slipping.

The big picture: Two of the Trump administration's major policy goals seem at cross purposes. Clamping down on immigrants and visitors could hamstring AI development in the U.S., which the White House says is a top priority.

Why it matters: The U.S. has long been the clear leader in AI research, but in recent years China and Europe have made vast strides toward overtaking it. Falling behind could have major economic and military repercussions.

  • The majority of AI talent in the U.S. is foreign-born, according to an analysis of submissions to NeurIPS, the top AI conference. "American companies have benefited tremendously from their own ability to attract international talent," says Joy Dantong Ma, the Paulson Institute researcher behind that study.
  • Now, tightening quotas and immigration rules can keep AI experts from coming to the U.S. to work, study or even present at conferences.
  • If current trends continue, "there will be a drain of talent returning to India and China," says Dick Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, a company that advises U.S. businesses on employment visas.

"Tightening immigration policies is inconsistent with wanting to lead in AI," says Remco Zwetsloot, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

What's happening: It's already becoming harder for businesses and academia to invite the best researchers across borders.

  • In 2015, the U.S. government denied 6% of employment-based visa claims; this year, it is on track to deny nearly a third, according to an analysis from the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy.
  • In a 2019 survey from Envoy, nearly half of 400 American HR departments polled said getting employment visas has gotten more difficult in the past 5 years.
  • And it's not only the U.S.: More than 100 AI researchers, many from African countries, were denied visas to Canada for last year's NeurIPS conference.

Driving the news: The Partnership on AI (PAI) — a group of tech companies, universities and nonprofits — published a paper this week calling for looser immigration rules and easier-to-obtain visas for short visits.

  • When the process is complex and costly, only the biggest companies can afford to attract foreign experts, the report says. That disadvantages startups and nonprofits without the resources to navigate the system.
  • What's more, employing engineers and designers with varied backgrounds can help ward off potentially disastrous mistakes like biased AI systems.

"It is worrying to us that it's not possible to get the right people in the room," says Lisa Dyer, PAI's director of policy.

What they're saying: By way of comment, the White House pointed to an administration proposal to increase the percentage of visas issued for employment by reducing family and humanitarian visas.

The bottom line: Restricting immigration has become the drumbeat of the Trump presidency and reelection campaign. The tech industry's needs are unlikely to outweigh the politics here.


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