- The NIPS conference has become the AI hiring event of the year
- Big tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft send armies of people to try to find machine learning experts to join their ranks
- Salaries on offer often run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The global war for artificial intelligence (AI) talent is raging, with tech giants fighting it out to hire the brightest minds in the field and use them to take their platforms into unchartered waters.
Finding the top people isn't easy. There's currently a shortage of people with the skills and experience needed to make breakthroughs in machine learning, a field of computer science that gives machines the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. Fortunately, many of the top minds in the field are going to be concentrated in one place this week when they descend on a conference in Long Beach, California, called NIPS, which stands for neural information processing systems.
Google, Microsoft, DeepMind, Facebook, Intel, Nvidia, Amazon, Apple, and Open AI (Elon Musk's AI research lab) will all be at NIPS presenting their latest research and looking to hire people from rival firms, as well as PhD students fresh out of universities like Stanford, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial.
"The NIPS conference that is once a year in December is unofficially the hiring event of the year," a Microsoft Research spokesperson told Business Insider last week. "So Microsoft is one of the companies that will be there representing the UK and looking to find those researchers that not only are the world’s best but also fit with our values. We've got quite a stake in this."
In some respects, AI specialists are quickly becoming the new investment bankers. Multibillion tech companies are willing to pay big annual salaries — often in excess of £100,000 and sometimes up to £1 million — to people that know how to programme machines to learn, according to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford. He told a select committee on artificial intelligence in October that many of these people are still in their mid-twenties.
Chris Bishop, head of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, told Business Insider that he will be on the lookout for potential recruits at the NIPS conference this week. Microsoft is one of the biggest sponsors at the event and he'll be manning Microsoft's Research stand, among other things.
"What we're seeing is this tremendous growth in demand for talent and right now that's being led by the big tech companies, including Microsoft, who are focusing on artificial intelligence and machine learning," said Bishop. "We're seeing market forces at play, we're seeing a lot of very smart young people choosing to go into this field but it takes time."
In a few years time it won't just be big tech companies that want to hire machine learning and AI talent, according to Bishop.
"As machine learning becomes ever more pervasive we'll see many different sectors — finance, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, across the whole spectrum — looking for talent in this space," he said. "So I think the [talent shortage[ phenomenon we're seeing will be with us for some number of years. It's very hard to predict of course but I don't see it changing dramatically any time soon."
But the near term AI developments over the next decade or two won't lead to the sci-fi AI scenarios painted in Hollywood movies, where machines with human level intelligence (or even superintelligence) roam around our planet of their own accord, according to Bishop.
Facebook papers and activities at NIPS. https://t.co/p8mPgiSWjs— Yann LeCun (@ylecun) December 1, 2017
"Artificial intelligence in the true sense is an aspirational goal for the future which will be underpinned by machine learning but in the short term — in the next decade or two at least — there will be many practical applications of machine learning that I wouldn't really call true intelligence but of huge practical value," he said.
"So we need to upskill people as the nature of the way software gets created is changing. Not for all software but for much of it."