Ex-Google CEO: New MIT College Could Help Shrink A.I. Talent Gap

Xconomy Boston — 

Eric Schmidt believes we’re entering an era where artificial intelligence will underpin most facets of human life. But we don’t yet have enough people with the right skills to build that future.

Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and former executive chairman of its parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), argues that the A.I. talent shortage is the most pressing challenge facing the industry today. Estimates of the current global number of skilled A.I. researchers and professionals differ, ranging from fewer than 100,000 people to several hundred thousand. Regardless, many in the industry agree that the demand for A.I. talent is outstripping the supply. As Schmidt points out, software engineers with A.I. expertise and a PhD are in some cases receiving multimillion-dollar salaries from companies—a clear sign of the escalating war for A.I. talent.

“It’s like the NBA at the moment,” Schmidt (pictured above, left) says of the sector’s skyrocketing salaries.

Schmidt, who remains a technical advisor to Alphabet, made his comments during a private discussion with press Thursday morning on MIT’s campus, alongside MIT School of Engineering dean Anantha Chandrakasan (pictured above, right), iRobot co-founder and renowned roboticist Helen Greiner, and investor Katie Rae, who leads The Engine, an independent corporation created by MIT to invest in and help build complex technology startups.

The Engine CEO Katie Rae (far left) moderates a panel during a celebration of MIT’s new College of Computing. Next to her are (left to right) iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, Breyer Capital CEO Jim Breyer, and MIT professor and inventor Bob Langer. Photo by Brian Dowling.

The chat was part of a three-day event celebrating the Cambridge, MA-based Institute’s new College of Computing, which will launch its first classes in the fall. The new school will serve as the focal point of MIT’s A.I. education and research efforts, and an interdisciplinary hub that will encourage innovation that combines A.I. with fields such as biology, physics, and economics. MIT is raising $1 billion for the college. As of mid-October, it had raised $650 million, including a $350 million gift from Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, for whom the college will be named.

Schmidt says MIT’s new college will help address the A.I. talent shortage, and virtually every university is “gearing up at a scale unprecedented to fulfill this need.” The problem is it’s not happening fast enough, he says.

“The level of demand across everything is exploding in this field,” Schmidt says. “The whole supply chain of humans has got to get bigger fast: more faculty, more students, more sourcing talent [from] around the world.”

Faculty are often overwhelmed by the number of students interested in studying computer science and A.I. technologies, such as machine learning, Rae says. At MIT, around 90 percent of students now take at least one computing class, and around 40 percent are pursuing a computer science major alone or in combination with another degree, Chandrakasan says.

“So many kids want to be computer science majors, but there aren’t enough professors to teach,” Rae says.

She says that The Engine, which scouts university research labs for many of its startup investments, has encountered an increasing number of students trying to teach themselves computer science through online courses and other available materials if they can’t get into a university program because there isn’t enough room.

“They’re doing it on their own,” she says.

MIT, for its part, plans to create 50 new faculty positions with its College of Computing, half of which will focus on the college and half that will be appointed jointly in the college and other departments across campus.

Technology, such as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, might be part of the equation to solving the talent crunch, Rae says.

“We’ve got to look at some scaled ways that people in other majors can even get a computer science minor or something,” she says.

Panelists also advocated for immigration policy changes to make it easier for bright foreigners to study at American universities—and stay here after they graduate.

“It’s crucial for national competitiveness,” says Schmidt, who serves on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a group of industry leaders formed last year to advise the federal government on how to maintain U.S. competitiveness in the field. “America is still the leader in [A.I.] technology, but we could be eclipsed [due to] bad government policies or us not responding to the demand signal.”

[Top photo by Brian Dowling.]