The technology sector is in the midst of an artificial intelligence (AI) boom. The global AI market, valued at $126 billion in 2015, is set to grow more than 36% annually from 2016 to 2024 to top $3,061 billion in 2024, according to a recent report from Transparency Market Research. With Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Baidu all looking to ramp up their AI activities, the battle for AI expertise is on.
According to Quid, a data firm, the tech giants spent around $8.5 billion on deals last year – four times more than in 2010. While there is no shortage of money in Silicon Valley or the Chinese tech sector, there is a dearth of AI talent. Therefore tech firms are increasingly luring the brightest students and faculty from universities. Taxi-hailing firm Uber recruited 40 of the 140-person staff of the National Robotics Engineering Centre at Carnegie Mellon University to work on self-driving cars last year, The Economist reports.
The biggest emphasis is on machine learning, which has far-reaching applications and has emerged as a major trend in AI. This development can be traced to when Google started doing AI-focused deals. In 2014 it acquired British AI start-up DeepMind, purportedly for some $600 million. This was around the same time that Facebook started an artificial intelligence lab and hired an academic from New York University to oversee it.
For academics, opportunities in the private sector are hard to beat: In addition to hefty salaries, they get the chance to see their ideas reach markets quickly, are also freed from the difficulties of securing research grants. Further, tech firms offer massive computing power and data sets, both of which machine learning relies on.
There are concerns that universities could be depleted, and that AI expertise could become concentrated in the hands of a few private-sector firms such as Google, which now leads in the field. However, steps are already being taken to avoid such pitfalls. In December several technology executives, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, pledged to invest over $1 billion on a not-for-profit initiative, OpenAI, which will make its research public. The aim is to combine the research focus of a university with the real-world endeavours of a company, and hopefully attract star researchers.