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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Early in the high-stakes race to dominate artificial intelligence, Big Tech — flush with cash, data, and name recognition — has seemed to have already captured AI's commanding heights and created an insurmountable, monopolistic advantage.

But new data suggests that the contest is not quite over, and that the field is much more crowded than was thought.

What's going on: Tech companies, startups, legacy companies and academics around the world are in a pitched battle to attract a relatively small number of talented AI experts, a struggle in which the chief weapons are money, prestige and glory.

  • Until now, this story has been dominated by dramatic incidents like Uber raiding the entire driverless research unit of Carnegie Mellon University, and Big Tech buying up startups by the dozen.
  • The resulting impression has been that AI talent is highly concentrated in Google, Amazon, Baidu and a few other Big Tech companies.
  • But a study by Diffbot, a Silicon Valley machine learning startup, has found that, even if Big Tech does employ a lot of AI experts, hundreds of thousands more are dispersed across companies the world over.

Realistically speaking, Big Tech simply cannot vacuum up the talent everywhere, says Diffbot CEO Mike Tung. "There are many places in the world where these companies simply have no offices or open jobs," Tung tells Axios.

Why it matters: That there is at least somewhat dispersed talent means that folks outside of Big Tech have at least a fighting chance to make the big breakthrough.

By the numbers:

  • More than 720,000 people worldwide have AI skills, by Diffbot’s count.
  • Just ten companies employ 10% of them.
  • But another 100 companies employ at least 1,000 people with AI skills. And more than 750 companies each employ at least 200 people with AI skills.

Even among the top rung, there are surprises, like Indian tech giants Infosys and Tata.

These numbers come from Diffbot’s whole-web search for every person with apparent AI skills, demonstrated through published academic papers, their LinkedIn profile, or their personal website.

Yoshua Bengio, a pioneering AI researcher at the University of Montreal, told me he's not surprised by the number of companies who have hired AI workers. Interest in AI "is springing from all quarters," he says.

  • Yes, but: Bengio cautions against reading too much into absolute numbers. If you take account of papers published for leading academic conferences, Big Tech again looks seriously formidable, he said.
  • "Anybody can say they have ML skills," said Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Ranking companies by the quantity of AI practitioners on staff isn’t the same as asking which are best at it.
  • Tata doesn’t have a head-and-shoulders advantage over Apple in AI, Etzioni says, even if it employs 2.5 times more self-described AI experts, as Diffbot reports. And IBM’s expertise is "very limited," he says, despite its second-place ranking.
"There is a monopolistic tendency in the tech world, which might get worse with AI because of the winner-take-all advantage of having access to most data, talent, customers and cash (e.g. to buy competing start-ups). I'm not sure how to deal with all that but clearly this deserves a social and political discussion."
— Yoshua Bengio

Go deeper: Academia and the tech industry feud over AI talent

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged that Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

2 hours ago - Podcasts

Google's chief health officer Karen DeSalvo on vaccinating America

Google on Monday became the latest Big Tech company to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations. Not just by doing things like incorporating vaccination sites into its maps, but by helping to turn some of its offices and parking lots into vaccination sites.

Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.