Heavyweight advances in artificial intelligence have typically come from two sources: academia and the tech industry. But beneath a mostly friendly surface is a steaming rift, with companies accused of holding up the field's advancement.
Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports: At a time of a fierce U.S.-Chinese rivalry for AI supremacy, academic critics accuse Big Tech of luring away university talent with high-dollar contracts, then focusing research not on big scientific questions, but on what bolsters their bottom line.
The context: Demand for AI experts is through the roof, and supply can’t keep up.
- Just 90,000 people worldwide have AI research skills, according to a February study from Element AI, making for intense demand for those who do possess the needed skills.
- More than half of new AI-focused Ph.D.s take lucrative industry jobs after graduation, according to the Computing Research Association.
- Top faculty members are being recruited by companies, too. University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska calls this a tragedy of the commons, because it chokes the supply of new AI experts, hurting academia and industry.
Among recent high-profile departures: Pedro Domingos is on leave from UW to work at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and legendary Carnegie Mellon computer science dean Andrew Moore announced he’s departing, but not for where.
In perhaps the most famous poaching case, Uber cleaned out Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab in 2015.
What they're saying: Academics are sounding the alarm.
- In a monster Twitter thread this summer, Carnegie Mellon professor Simon DeDeo painted a bleak picture of corporate labs.
- The gap between academia and corporate labs is reflected in the questions they pursue, he tells Axios. Where academia might explore how social media changes how people think, a corporate social network might ask: If people post sad things, do they use our product for longer?
- "An industrial research lab doesn't just do research," says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI in Seattle. "They're also accountable to the corporation."
The other side: Jitendra Malik, a longtime Berkeley professor, joined Facebook’s AI research lab earlier this year, but says he doesn't feel guilty. "I feel like I have paid my dues to academia," he says.
In fact, some corporate labs do take on fundamental research, like this Facebook work on machine translation posted last week.
- Researchers are free to set agendas based on their interest, Malik tells Axios, and aren’t held back from publishing results that reflect poorly on their employer.
- Conducting research at a corporate lab means less time chasing grants plus access to bountiful data and computing power. Some companies, like LinkedIn, also offer up slices of their data for academics to use.
Go deeper: Facebook’s new AI labs pressure universities (NYT)