Aug 16, 2019

China's AI brain drain could have a powerful impact on the future of data-driven development

According to a recent analysis of China’s AI ecosystem by MarcoPolo, a think-tank focused on China’s economic growth, a significant outflow of AI researchers is threatening to hamper China’s AI ambitions. While the number of Chinese AI researchers has increased tenfold over the last decade, most are heading overseas to other AI superpowers.

Papers accepted to NeurIPS, a prominent AI conference, that were authored by researchers from China increased from roughly from 100 to 1,000 between 2009 and 2019. Most of that growth occurred following China’s release of its AI strategy in 2017, as second-tier schools jumpstarted AI specializations and programs en masse.

Roughly three-quarters of the Chinese authors, however, work outside China. Furthermore, 85% of those currently working outside China are employed in the US, usually at tech giants or prominent research universities. The US has benefited greatly from the influx of Chinese researchers, despite political and economic attempts to minimize collaboration.

The strength of any AI ecosystem is typically measured based on four inputs: talent, data, capital, and hardware. Already flush with data, capital, and hardware, the US receives a steady supply of much-needed talent from China.

While software development has spread globally and open source artificial intelligence is becoming more accessible to developers, AI research has become increasingly centralized. Cutting-edge machine learning models largely depend on proprietary services operated by US-based technology giants — Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. With an influx of new AI researchers from abroad, these companies seem likely to maintain a foothold as the preeminent machine learning centers of the developer world, forcing the rest of the cloud ecosystem to gravitate toward them.

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