Jul 15, 2018

Flashback: When AI paid chump change

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

Now that AI's brightest minds earn six- and seven-figure salaries, it's worth remembering that the field didn't always command the big bucks. I was reminded of this last week on stumbling over reactions to a famous 18-year-old Wired essay by computer pioneer Bill Joy.

What's going on: As in all other work, AI salaries are a function of supply and demand — there are relatively few genuine AI researchers, and extremely high demand for them. Ph.D. salaries could return to Earth if the fever diminishes — if, for example, investors sour on AI.

The 2000 essay by Joy, then chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, was called "Why the future doesn't need us." In it, he argued that new forms of technology were potentially dangerous and could render humans obsolete.

It sparked an ardent debate. One impassioned reaction was from Richard Wallace, a chatbot expert who created ALICE, the inspiration for Spike Jonze's Her, and who now works at Pandorabots. Wallace wrote:

"I found it slightly disingenuous for Joy to announce that robotics is the next big threat to mankind, when most people working in robotics and AI are barely scratching out a living. We would all like to found successful companies like Sun and become wealthy philosophers. But the last thing we need right now is more government regulations or the kind of negative publicity that gives pause to our investors. Our small startups are hardly as threatening as nuclear proliferation."

I asked Andrew Moore, dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a former VP of engineering at Google, for his thoughts on the 18-year-old comment.

  • AI researchers are paid well, Moore said — "I do not feel sorry for scientists and engineers in the world of robotics and AI" — but pay disparity is a real problem. He said:
"If a recent grad can get an overall compensation package of 180K for working on AI for web search engines and a comp package of much less than half of that for (say) working for USDA on AI for preventing food-borne outbreaks, then we are going to see public safety and welfare losing out in AI adoption."

Moore agreed with Wallace about regulation: While self-driving cars should come under close oversight, he said, "regulating against potentially hitting the singularity would be like regulating against worm hole space travel."

Go deeper: Why AI researchers are so highly paid (NYT)

Go deeper

HBCUs are missing from the discussion on venture capital's diversity

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Venture capital is beginning a belated conversation about its dearth of black investors and support of black founders, but hasn't yet turned its attention to the trivial participation of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as limited partners in funds.

Why it matters: This increases educational and economic inequality, as the vast majority of VC profits go to limited partners.

Unemployment rate falls to 13.3% in May

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 13.3% in May, with 2.5 million jobs gained, the government said on Friday.

Why it matters: The far better-than-expected numbers show a surprising improvement in the job market, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The difficulty of calculating the real unemployment rate

Data: U.S. Department of Labor; Note: Initial traditional state claims from the weeks of May 23 and 30, continuing traditional claims from May 23. Initial PUA claims from May 16, 23, and 30, continuing PUA and other programs from May 16; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The shocking May jobs report — with a decline in the unemployment rate to 13.3% and more than 2 million jobs added — destroyed expectations of a much worse economic picture.

Why it matters: Traditional economic reports have failed to keep up with the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and have made it nearly impossible for researchers to determine the state of the U.S. labor market or the economy.