The concept of AI has been a subject of fascination for almost as long as computers have existed. However, we’ve only recently begun to see what a future with AI might actually look like and — despite the grim picture that is often painted in sci-fi stories — the outlook is pretty exciting.
Luckily for us, the AI industry is currently less focused on the task of replacing the human race with an army of brutal machines and more occupied with solving big data problems.
While this might stave off the cyborg apocalypse for a few years, it does create a more immediate issue for the global community. As the demand for skilled professionals in AI continues to expand, employers are struggling to keep up. This could mean the tech giants steering the innovation in the field could shape how academic institutions build out coursework and research programs.
Tech giants poach academic talent
The potential applications of AI are nearly boundless. AI has infiltrated consumer tech products via the Internet of Things. Without AI, there would be no way to interconnect all of the new IoT devices and organize the massive amounts of data they generate into useful information. Because of this increased interest in AI integration in consumer technologies, heavy hitters like Google and Amazon are scrambling to find skilled professionals in the field. This has created a sticky situation for academic institutions.
Tech companies are now in direct competition with academic institutions for the world’s brightest minds in AI-related fields. Professionals in computer engineering, data science, and machine learning are a hot commodity, and employers are pulling out all the stops to get their attention. Major companies are stealing professors and academic leaders from universities because these individuals are some of the few true experts in AI. As you might imagine, offers from these companies provide some serious numbers that academic institutions simply cannot. It’s no secret that academia isn’t equipped to counter the lucrative offers of tech giants like Google, Apple, and Intel.
AI is still in its infancy, but the technology is already disrupting age-old traditions in how we as humans think about and pursue education, labor, and culture, whether we are directly affected by it or not. With such widespread potential for new applications and improvements to existing technology, the demand for competent AI professionals is extremely high right now. This is great for those who are already working in the field, but the trouble is that the skills required to work in the AI field have a relatively steep — and long — learning curve. This has major companies in the industry headhunting top talent from postgraduate programs across the world.
Poaching from universities could potentially have a negative impact on the amount of quality research that comes out of schools. Sure, we’ll see a lot of innovation from large corporations in its place, but we could experience a lack of unbiased studies created without business objectives in mind.
Schools build the future of AI
On the flip side, schools need to create effective programs and coursework within AI-related fields in order to train the next generation of professionals. As of now, most universities don’t offer a degree in AI per se, but many students are eager to snag one of the high-paying jobs the field has to offer. As student outcomes become arguably one of the most important metrics in determining the success of a college program, this could mean schools will look to the largest employers in the AI field to determine how they shape their coursework.
People are already keenly interested in the places where major tech companies prefer to pull their employees from. As the demand for AI-specific programs increases, professionals will likely look for schools with high post-grad success rates. The schools that tailor their programs to fit the needs of the largest tech companies and establish quality relationships with their hiring teams will likely win the hearts — and, most importantly, pocketbooks — of students and their parents.
Tailoring programs specifically to the needs and wants of tech employers is helpful for churning out students capable of landing jobs post-graduation. However, it could deprive the future workforce of learning different perspectives and non-commercial applications that help them challenge the status quo and drive innovation.
So… is this good or bad?
The good news is, AI won’t be stealing all of the jobs away from future generations — in fact, it’s kind of having the opposite effect. The potentially bad news is that the demand for AI-related jobs could lead academic institutions away from an emphasis on unbiased research. It could also influence institutions to move toward building AI programs with a strong commercial focus. The best scenario would be one where schools and tech companies work together to share resources.
A more collaborative approach could help schools hold onto their top teaching talent by offering professionals access to opportunities to work with major companies without leaving their work at the institution. Universities could also work with major tech companies to get a better understanding of how they can create programs that fulfill commercial needs for well-trained talent while still encouraging the development of independent thought and unique skills.
Getting anyone to play nice in the business world is no easy feat — especially when you consider the extreme talent scarcity in the AI field right now. However, building a collaborative bridge between the academic and corporate organizations in the tech sector could be the best way to solidify an ideal future for AI innovation.
Hilary Bird is a digital journalist who writes for SpinSucks, Business.org, and Consensus.