Governments, corporations and even technology vendors are all grappling with major opportunities and challenges emerging as artificial intelligence moves from the lab into the boardroom.
With any game-changing innovation the biggest challenge is often the scarcity of talent, not least in the field of AI where many of the advances emanated from academia. Often pioneers of this latest wave of disruption are PhD students from top global universities who see the opportunity to take a theory from the classroom and create a product or solution for the world.
AI and deep learning, automation, predictive analytics, quantum computing and nano technology have all in some form started life in a lab or classroom - not in a traditional software development environment. The net result is that the new 'rock stars' (well-paid technical talent) as they are so commonly called in Silicon Valley, are the PhD Research Scientists who are even fewer in number today than their predecessor software engineers. On some estimates, there may be no more than 20,000 or so worldwide, pushing up salaries and competition to attract these newest stars of tech.
High-growth innovators and US Tech giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and NVIDIA all consume their fair share of this talent pool, paying in the range of £200-300k plus equity to entice them into the commercial world. Big corporations too are also wanting to exploit this talent by bringing them 'inhouse', setting up innovation centres and their own AI labs.
This has led to a perfect storm; high demand and low supply (of the brightest and best) leading to a high cost of hiring.
Odgers Berndtson has recently partnered with a market leading British AI innovator to help them find the people they require. Our search moved away from the traditional hunting grounds of competitor organisations, and instead tapped directly into the source, those currently researching at leading academic institutions around the world (North America, Europe and Asia).
We found that academic salaries are modest in comparison to what is on offer in the commercial world. As an example, a PhD qualified Research Scientist in academia will be compensated in the range of £60-80,000 – but big Tech Companies might quadruple that and throw in large equity packages for many of the brightest minds.
At the same time, commercial businesses are also required to compromise and demonstrate a higher level of workplace flexibility, for example allowing these individuals to continue to explore their academic areas of interest in order to attract and retain them.
This talent pool is also truly global and not limited to the 50 miles that forms the Silicon Valley. They are spread throughout the world and as such are naturally collaborative, often publishing ideas and research for the betterment of mankind rather than individual or company commercial gain. Attracting them into businesses where their ideas will be exploited for the latter, is a very real challenge companies face, as high salaries alone are not enough of an incentive.
Brexithas the potential to reduce the opportunities and attractiveness of working in the UK as we seemingly become more insular and focused on self-interest, flying in the face of the global open mind-set that so many of the best people expect. By making it harder for non-UK citizens to enter the country, British businesses of all kinds run a very real risk of being vastly restricted to a smaller talent pool, less diversity, and a higher cost of local talent.
So it is vital for the government to take urgent steps to address this now if it wants to retain, or build, a lead in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. We must continue to attract top global talent and retain funding for cutting-edge university research. We must also do much more to develop our own people – particularly young women, who currently quit the tech industry at twice the rate of men and are already woefully under-represented.
Even before Brexit, we are seeing that uncertainty is already having an impact. For example, the Chief Executive at an Odgers client, a well-regarded FinTech company, told us that four of his best technical people (non UK citizens) recently resigned and left the UK to take up job offers in other countries due to the lack of clarity on their long term right to remain.
It is abundantly clear that unless addressed, these factors will harm the UK's ability to exploit the opportunities in AI, and any lethargy to act will see the UK fall behind other nations rapidly. The time to act is now.