In a tight market for AI and machine learning, tech companies have always relied on a secret weapon -- tapping into the talent available in academia. But who will train tomorrow's AI experts?

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

September 13, 2018

3 Min Read
Image: Gundam Ai/Shutterstock

September has long meant back-to-school time. Students and professors report to class for a new semester. Many students will be seeking degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) to gain the skills that are expected to be in high demand in the years to come.

But some top professors may not be teaching as many classes as they used to -- or perhaps they are not teaching any at all.

That's because some of the top technology companies, looking to hire the smartest people for their artificial intelligence and machine learning operations, are hiring professors away from academia. It's not a new trend, and many companies have done it, from Microsoft to Google to Facebook. But it seems to have picked up steam in recent years as organizations are scrambling to hire machine learning and AI talent in a very tight market.

"We've done it too," said Eric Haller, executive vice president and global head of Experian DataLabs, an analytics and machine learning R&D organization inside the credit reporting bureau company. He recently spoke with InformationWeek in an interview. "We've recruited professors in London and Sao Paulo. Our chief scientist there [Renato Vincente] was a top professor and still teaches at the University of Sao Paulo…It's definitely a trend."

For some academics, making a move to industry can mean a big boost in pay -- after all, AI and machine learning skills are in high demand and highly paid. Even universities that pay their top professors well won't be able to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook. There are benefits beyond financial rewards, too.

Jennifer Chayes, a managing director at Microsoft Research, who joined the software company's R&D arm after leaving a career as a UCLA professor of mathematics in 1999, has said that working in the private sector can be more appealing because it provides more resources and more time to focus on research. Andrew Moore, a professor of computer science and robotics left Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 to go to Google, but headed back to academia in 2014 when CMU named him dean of its computer science school. In 2015, Uber hired away 40 of CMU's researchers and scientists.

The trend gives the tech industry a bit of a bad name really. Hiring away top talent from teaching and research ranks hobbles the institutions that are training the next generation.

"In some ways it's a bad trend," said Haller, "But I totally understand it…We can make it very attractive (for professors) to come over. It depends on the individual. For a professor who wants the practical application route, we are a great alternative."

Facebook's FAIR

Perhaps cognizant of the stigma for poaching academic talent but unwilling to completely stop, Facebook announced plans to hire four top professors in July 2018 as part of a program created four years ago. Called Facebook AI Research or FAIR, Facebook says the program collaborates with local academic communities, often in a "dual affiliation model" where researchers split time between Facebook and their universities.

"This model allows people within FAIR to continue teaching classes and advising graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, while publishing papers regularly," wrote Yann LeCun, Facebook Chief AI Scientist, in a blog post announcing the hires.

Education's New Model

Even as some professors leave academia for industry, the higher education system may be at the precipice of a new business model, too. High tuitions and a multitude of online courses in practical skills are making it possible for many students to learn job skills without attending colleges and universities. In August 2018, job site GlassDoor published a list of 15 companies that no longer require job applicants to have a college degree.

Those companies include Google, Apple, and IBM. 

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About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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