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Could the AI Talent Shortage Be Eased If Tech Giants Learn to Share?

November 10, 2017

We may be about to find out. Wired reports that Facebook is about to kick off a scheme that will see it ship out some of its machine-learning experts to telecom firms that have been struggling to recruit AI staff. The companies will use the talent to explore how AI can improve their networks—whether that’s by optimizing the positioning of cell towers, predicting when and where outages might occur, or automating day-to-day work.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t an act of great generosity. It’s in Facebook’s interest for telcos to improve their service, because it means people have better connections through which they can mindlessly scroll down a newsfeed.

But the idea may go some way to easing a big problem across the technology industry. While there’s little doubt that AI can streamline all kinds of businesses, a recent McKinsey report warned that a shortage of machine-learning talent will put a dent in how quickly those efficiencies can actually be realized. That’s being exacerbated by the fact that tech giants like Facebook and Google have ferociously gobbled up expertise from academia and industry.

There are other moves being made to rectify the problem. A startup called Coursera, for instance, aims to train millions of people in the skills required to develop AI. Meanwhile, pushes to automate the very development of machine-learning systems could allow non-experts to build AIs.

Those approaches will take time to mature, though. In the meantime, the idea of using existing talent as efficiently as possible makes a lot of sense. At this week’s EmTech MIT conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, AI expert Andrew Ng suggested that companies shouldn’t look to dot AI staff across their workforce, but instead should build unified machine-learning teams that pool resources to solve problems faster and more intelligently.

There are, clearly, monopolistic issues with concentrating AI expertise inside firms like Facebook and Google. But perhaps, pushing Ng's advice to the limit, it's possible to imagine a situation where tech giants loan out teams to solve problems across different industries. It's by no means a perfect solution, but it could provide some firms with the injection of AI expertise that they're so desperate to obtain.

So it will be interesting to see if Facebook's telco experiment works, and if it makes similar commitments to other sectors in the future.

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