Tech Giants Pay A.I. Specialists Huge Salaries

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Practically all big tech companies have an artificial intelligence (A.I) project, and they are disposed to paying experts millions of dollars to help get it done.

Tech’s biggest companies are placing huge bets on artificial intelligence, banking on things ranging from face-scanning smartphones and conversational coffee-table gadgets to computerized health care and autonomous vehicles. As they chase this future, they are doling out salaries that are startling even in an industry that has never been shy about lavishing a fortune on its top talent.

Typical A.I. specialists, including both Ph.Ds fresh out of school and people with less education and just a few years of experience, can be paid from $300,000 to $500,000 a year or more in salary and company stock, according to nine people who work for major tech companies or have entertained job offers from them. All of them requested anonymity because they did not want to damage their professional prospects.

Well-known names in the A.I. field have received compensation in salary and shares in a company’s stock that total single- or double-digit millions over a four- or five-year period. And at some point they renew or negotiate a new contract, much like a professional athlete.

At the top end are executives with experience managing A.I. projects. In a court filing this year, Google revealed that one of the leaders of its self-driving-car division, Anthony Levandowski, a longtime employee who started with Google in 2007, took home over $120 million in incentives before joining Uber last year through the acquisition of a start-up he had co-founded that drew the two companies into a court fight over intellectual property.

Salaries are spiraling so fast that some joke the tech industry needs a National Football League-style salary cap on A.I. specialists. “That would make things easier,” said Christopher Fernandez, one of Microsoft’s hiring managers. “A lot easier.”

There are a few catalysts for the huge salaries. The auto industry is competing with Silicon Valley for the same experts who can help build self-driving cars. Giant tech companies like Facebook and Google also have plenty of money to throw around and problems that they think A.I. can help solve, like building digital assistants for smartphones and home gadgets and spotting offensive content.

Most of all, there is a shortage of talent, and the big companies are trying to land as much of it as they can. Solving tough A.I. problems is not like building the flavor-of-the-month smartphone app. In the entire world, fewer than 10,000 people have the skills necessary to tackle serious artificial intelligence research, according to Element AI, an independent lab in Montreal.

Not surprisingly, many think the talent shortage won’t be alleviated for years.

“Of course demand outweighs supply. And things are not getting better any time soon,” Yoshua Bengio, a professor at the University of Montreal and a prominent A.I. researcher, said. “It takes many years to train a Ph.D.”