Giant Corporations Are Hoarding the World’s AI Talent

GENERAL ELECTRIC BUILDS jet engines and wind turbines and medical gear. But the 124-year-old industrial giant is also transforming itself for the digital age. It’s fashioning software that pulls data from all this hardware, hoping to gain an insight into industrial operations that was never possible in the past. The problem is that analyzing all this data is difficult, and the talent needed to make it happen is scarce. So GE is going shopping.

The company just paid an undisclosed amount to acquire a Berkeley-based machine learning startup called “There’s thirty of them,” GE CEO Jeff Immelt says gleefully of the team, which is heavy with astrophysicists. “You match them with aviation data, and they’re killer.”

That’s great for GE and Immelt—and for their customers. But what if you’re a small software company trying to inject some AI into your operation? was on a mission to “democratize AI”—to creating tools anyone could use to build machine learning services—but it’s now disappearing into GE. And at a time when machine learning is the prime way of staying competitive in the software world, that’s a notable thing. In the battle for scarce AI talent, companies like GE have an overwhelming advantage.

Not everyone can go out and grab thirty AI-happy astrophysicists. And if you can’t do that, the talent pool becomes very small very quickly, since these machine learning techniques are so new and so different from standard software development. Even the big players talk about the tiny talent pool: Microsoft research chief Peter Lee says the cost of acquiring a top AI researcher is comparable to the cost of acquiring an NFL quarterback.

Over the past few years, other heavyweights have snapped up so many other AI startups you’ve never heard of. Twitter bought Mad Bits, Whetlab, and Magic Pony. Apple bagged Turi and Tuplejump. Salesforce acquired MetaMind and Prediction I/O. Intel acquired Nervana. And that’s just a partial list. And it’s not just software and Internet companies doing the buying. It’s also giants like Samsung and GE that are incorporating AI into physical things. As soon as startups spring up to meet the AI need, they get sucked up into the maws of the hungriest, richest corporations.

“These big companies are establishing their advantage,” says Chris Nicholson, the founder of Skymind, a still-independent deep learning startup. “Technology is always a battlefield, and they’re tilting it with these acquisitions.”

A Shrinking Pool

Nicole Shanahan is seeing this firsthand. Her startup, ClearAccessIP, is building software that seeks to automatically analyze patent portfolios. The company uses the latest in machine learning techniques to mine relevant information for patent transactions. That means Shanahan needs data scientists, people with experience in deep neural networks and software like Google’s open source TensorFlow engine that drives this increasingly important form of AI. She’s trying to hire four data scientists who specialize in machine learning, and she can’t land even one. Last week, she put an offer out to a candidate in Canada, but he declined, saying he couldn’t make the move to the States. “It really slows us down,” Shanahan says. “We may end up hiring him as a contractor and letting him work from there.”

Can’t she just hire ordinary coders? Not really. Building this machine learning technology is quite different from standard software engineering. It’s less about coding and more about coaxing results from vast pools of data.

The irony is that Shanahan’s domestic partner happens to be Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, one of the main companies soaking up so much of the available deep learning talent. In 2013, Google acquired DNNresearch, nabbing one of the primary forces behind this technology’s recent rise: University of Toronto professor Geoff Hinton. Then it snapped up DeepMind, the company that recently shocked the AI world by building system that could crack the ancient game of Go. These acquisitions were the start of the industry’s buying spree.

source: by 

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