Jun 27, 2023 - Technology

Exclusive: Immigrants play outsize role in the AI game

Data: NFAP analysis, Forbes; Note: Number of employees as of April 2023; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: NFAP analysis, Forbes; Note: Number of employees as of April 2023; Chart: Axios Visuals

Immigrants to the United States have played a large part in founding AI companies and studying in AI fields, per a new study from the National Foundation for American Policy shared exclusively with Axios.

Why it matters: As the generative AI boom reshapes the U.S.'s tech job market, the industry is already strapped for talent and constantly pushing for immigration policies that bring in more workers from abroad.

  • Some have warned that the U.S. risks its AI leadership if it doesn't increase the number of high-skilled immigrants allotted per year and offer other incentives for students to stay in the U.S. after graduation.
  • At the same time, American lawmakers are advocating for better training programs to advance homegrown AI and tech talent, but getting Congress to allocate money is a slow process.

What they're saying: "Foreign-born individuals play a crucial role in AI as researchers and experts consider retaining international students after graduation vital to America’s leadership in artificial intelligence," the study's author, Stuart Anderson, writes.

  • "The variety of AI-focused businesses founded by immigrants shows how artificial intelligence will likely benefit many Americans... Immigrants provide America with an edge in the global battle over technology and artificial intelligence."

By the numbers: Per the report:

  • 28 of 43 (65%) of the top AI companies in the U.S. were founded or co-founded by immigrants;
  • 70% of full-time graduate students in fields related to AI are international students;
  • 18 of 43 (42%) of top U.S. based-AI companies have a founder who studied in the U.S. as an international student.

Details: The study bases its top 50 U.S. AI companies on the Forbes AI 50. The founders of OpenAI, which has arguably caused the most buzz for generative AI, include immigrant founders from South Africa, Canada and Poland.

  • The study also highlights the India-born founders of AI startup Adept, Niki Parmar and Ashish Vaswani.
  • Other countries where notable AI founders or co-founders are from include Israel, Argentina, Syria, Lebanon, the U.K., Taiwan, France, Iran, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
  • Those founders studied at universities including, among others, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown.

The big picture: Both Microsoft and Google — the two tech giants most involved in pushing generative AI, ChatGPT and large language models into the mainstream — are led today by immigrants from India.

  • U.S. tech firms have long supported programs that provide visas for skilled workers from overseas. Those programs became more controversial and hit delays under the Trump administration, but have returned to smoother functioning under President Biden.
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