The universities around the UK that have been a driving force behind the recent rise of Artificial Intelligence are being robbed of their talent. Scientists are being pulled away from university labs and into multinational tech companies. The universities say that these companies are shooting themselves in the foot, killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
“He was offered so much money that he simply dropped everything and left”, Maja Pantic, professor of affective and behavioural computing at Imperial, recently told the Guardian. “It’s five times the salary I can offer, it’s unbelievable, we cannot compete.”
It’s becoming a more and more common issue. Scientists from universities countrywide are in the labs one night and gone the next morning, tempted away by the six-figure salaries being offered by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.
The problem is so rife that one university executive warned of a ‘missing generation’ of academics, with nobody left to teach the students coming through.
As a result, research programmes will fall apart, teaching will become lacklustre and the eventual AI brain drain will have an effect much wider than just academia.
When university experts move into a handful of private companies, their knowledge and skills are no longer shared with the world. Instead, they become commodities. Secretive and highly guarded.
UK universities have contributed an enormous amount of work towards the progress of AI. They have planted many of the seeds that have grown into industry-defining innovation. Now, because they can’t pay six-figure salaries to researchers, they’re going to struggle to stay afloat.
And there is a much bigger problem. It is the universities who do much of the research into the possible downsides and negative outcomes of Artificial Intelligence. Universities don’t just diffuse their knowledge into tech innovation to try and drive profits. Instead, they spend a lot of time doing the essential research that could be the make or break of human society when AI truly excels.
There’s a certain irony to all of this, too. The companies who are poaching uni talent are Facebook, Apple, and Google. These are the same ones who have recently been revealed as tax dodgers – legally or otherwise. So not only are they poaching all of the talent, but they are also contributing less in taxes, the taxes which the government uses to subsidise research and innovation at universities.
“If the companies don’t pay tax it’s a problem for the government. The government doesn’t get enough money to educate people, or to invest in academia. It’s a vicious circle,” says Pantic.
The only answer, it seems, is flexible working. Uni’s need to understand that great AI minds will want to work with the most forward-thinking companies in the world, and they should be allowed to, maybe three days here, two days there. And the tech companies must appreciate that it is universities who are doing much of the damage limitation research in AI. Apple, for example, should allow, maybe even encourage, employees to split their time between work and university research. This way, everyone is happy and all interests are served.
If the talent pool of university researchers is drained without limitation, and tech companies focus purely on profit-making innovations, AI becomes an increasingly dangerous technology, increasingly likely to step out from under our control, and unleash damage on the world.