Dec 5, 2018

AI talent is not monopolized quite yet

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

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 1,579,690 — Total deaths: 94,567 — Total recoveries: 346,780Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 452,582 — Total deaths: 16,129 — Total recoveries: 24,790Map.
  3. Public health latest: U.S. has expelled thousands of migrants under coronavirus public health orderDr. Anthony Fauci said social distancing could reduce the U.S. death toll to 60,000.
  4. Business latest: The Fed will lend up to $2.3 trillion for businesses, state and city governments — Another 6.6 million jobless claims were filed last week.
  5. World latest: Boris Johnson is moved out of ICU but remains in hospital with coronavirus.
  6. In Congress: Senate in stalemate over additional funding for small business relief program.
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Biden rolls out new policies in effort to court Sanders supporters

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Biden campaign announced two new policies on Thursday on health care and student debt that are squarely aimed at appealing to supporters of Bernie Sanders, who ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The policies don't go as far as Sanders' platform, but they signal that Biden is serious about incorporating elements of his former rival's agenda in an effort to help unify the Democratic Party and defeat President Trump in the general election.

Reports: Saudi Arabia and Russia reach major deal to cut oil production

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

OPEC+, led by mega-producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, reached a tentative agreement Thursday to impose large cuts in oil production as the coronavirus pandemic fuels an unprecedented collapse in demand, per Bloomberg and Reuters.

Why it matters: The revival of the OPEC+ collaboration patches up the early March rupture between the countries, which had pushed already depressed prices down much further by threatening to unleash even more new supplies into the saturated market.