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'We Can't Compete': Universities Are Losing Their Best AI Scientists (theguardian.com) 268

The Guardian shares the story of a PhD student at Imperial College London who abruptly stopped coming to the facility, even as he had one-year of studies left. From the story: Eventually, the professor called him. He had left for a six-figure salary at Apple. "He was offered such a huge amount of money that he simply stopped everything and left," said Maja Pantic, professor of affective and behavioural computing at Imperial. "It's five times the salary I can offer. It's unbelievable. We cannot compete." It is not an isolated case, the report says. Adding: Across the country, talented computer scientists are being lured from academia by private sector offers that are hard to turn down. According to a Guardian survey of Britain's top ranking research universities, tech firms are hiring AI experts at a prodigious rate, fuelling a brain drain that has already hit research and teaching. One university executive warned of a "missing generation" of academics who would normally teach students and be the creative force behind research projects. The impact of the brain drain may reach far beyond academia. Pantic said the majority of top AI researchers moved to a handful of companies, meaning their skills and experience were not shared through society. "That's a problem because only a diffusion of innovation, rather than its concentration into just a few companies, can mitigate the dramatic disruptions and negative effects that AI may bring about."
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'We Can't Compete': Universities Are Losing Their Best AI Scientists

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  • Surprised? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Herkum01 ( 592704 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:29AM (#55469507)

    Why should they be surprised? PHDs are treated like crappy free labor by universities.

    Perhaps when they stopping paying administration officials obscene salaries and pay professors and grads what they are actually worth the quality at universities will improve.

    • Absolutely I wok for a big university (37K Students 6K Staff) and we generate approx £600M revenue for the Uni and approx £2B for the local economy every year and we pay researchers peanuts :|
    • Re:Surprised? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by stabiesoft ( 733417 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @11:29AM (#55469963) Homepage

      Perhaps when they stop paying football and basketball coaches obscene salaries and pay professors and grads what they are actually worth the quality at universities will improve.

      Fixed it for you.

      • Re:Surprised? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by XxtraLarGe ( 551297 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @12:20PM (#55470329) Journal

        Perhaps when they stop paying football and basketball coaches obscene salaries and pay professors and grads what they are actually worth the quality at universities will improve.

        How do you gauge what is obscene and what people are actually worth? For instance, back in 2010, it was estimated that Tom Izzo was paid $3 million, but the basketball program generated roughly $11 million for the university [espn.com]. So do you think the professors and grads should be paid 27% of the revenue they generate for universities? How do you calculate that? What if they don't generate any revenue? Do you pay them nothing?

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          $11 million "for the university" -- like somebody walked over a check to the CompSci office and said "Here, give those AI researchers a raise!"

          It made sense on paper for big athletic departments and sports programs to become "self-funding" -- they could spend whatever fans and boosters wanted, so long as they raised the money to pay for it without spending University money.

          The problem was, if they were actually profitable they began to claim their own profits either outright or by inflating their budgets ra

      • Perhaps when they stop paying football and basketball coaches obscene salaries and pay professors and grads what they are actually worth the quality at universities will improve.

        Fixed it for you.

        You're making the assumption that hiring a different football coach and paying them $1-2 million less will not have any effect on the revenue generated by the football team. I'd be interested in seeing your reasoning or evidence for making that assumption.

        • There is no "reasoning" here, it is all emotional rhetoric of the uninformed. All they see is "$X Million salary" and get all envious without understanding that salary allows revenue that funds all sorts of things and keeps University Boosters donating to various programs. And without a football/basketball/whatever team making obscene revenue for the University, the university would actually be worse off.

          But they don't care because all they see. "$X Million Salary" and have an emotional reaction they can't

    • Is not the point of school to to gain knowledge, find a JOB then make a life long career? SO finding a JOB before you even finish school saves years and $10Ks. What is the problem again?

      • It's taking short-term gain in exchange for potentially greater long-term gain. In many fields, having a Ph.D. gets you access to higher positions (and thus higher pay) than only having a Master's degree. Leaving a Ph.D. program early to take an industry job isn't necessarily a bad decision, but I hope that any students doing it have thought carefully about the advantages and disadvantages so that they're making an informed decision.
    • Why should they be surprised? PHDs are treated like crappy free labor by universities.

      Perhaps when they stopping paying administration officials obscene salaries and pay professors and grads what they are actually worth the quality at universities will improve.

      While this is certainly true in the USA, the specific instance referenced above was in the UK. Can any UK Slashdotters give us a UK perspective on this?

      I'm also wondering if in a few more years this might sort itself out as too many people jump into the field in college and there end up being more graduates than there are really jobs and some companies don't do a very good job of figuring out who really knows their stuff and who doesn't. The growth in this field can't be infinite, can't be indefini

      • by mikael ( 484 )

        UK university principals and vice-principals earn megabucks just like drug cartels (around £260,000/year). Prime minister earns around £150K
        Starting salaries for higher education (HE) lecturers range from around £33,943 to £41,709.
        At senior lecturer level, you'll typically earn between £41,709 and £55,998. Head of department earns £70K
        Stipends for a PhD are around £14K/year. TA duties are £5/hour. It was more cost effective Amazon Turking since the minut

      • by pjt33 ( 739471 )

        Can any UK Slashdotters give us a UK perspective on this?

        Most PhD students get a grant which gives them enough to eat. But the whole "doing the staff's job for them" business which some Americans complain about does not translate.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Company pays more for person to work on a product than a university pays to work on research. News at 11.

    • There's probably a lot less pressure when doing research work.

      I'm reminded of xkcd's #664 [xkcd.com].

    • Actually, it's MUCH worse than that. Companies pay people much more to do RESEARCH than Universities do. My partner is finishing her PhD, and she's already talked to a few industry people. Her concern that she wouldn't be able to do the research that interests her, or that she wouldn't have the supercomputing resources that her research requires were completely assuaged. Companies want her to do her research, because even blue-sky AI research can and does have practical implications.

      And because she's not do

  • Mad money (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grasshoppa ( 657393 ) <skennedy@tpno - c o . o rg> on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:31AM (#55469523) Homepage

    If this is important for Universities, maybe they can take some of all that lovely guaranteed student loan money and direct it towards salaries instead of beanbags, crayons, safe spaces and "grounds improvement" and whatever the hell else they spend gobs of that money on.

    • I'm pretty sure if you look at university balance sheets you can see that furniture, office supplies, student activities and landscaping aren't that big of a portion of universities' budgets. Payroll and facilities are always way more expensive than those combined. Let's not forget that we not talking about one of american universities that can charge their students obscene amounts of money, we're talking about a UK one where student loans are reasonable and written off after a number of years if you can't
    • If this is important for Universities, maybe they can take some of all that lovely guaranteed student loan money and direct it towards salaries

      A university is never going to be able to compete on salary with companies like Apple. Instead universities compete on interest. You can work on groundbreaking, curiosity-driven research that industry usually cannot afford to take a risk on. For example, I'm a particle physicist and get to work at places like CERN trying to understand the fundamental nature of matter while my brother, who is also a physicist, builds better hair dryers. He earns far more than I do and has a huge research budget but it's now

      • It's a completely different problem with AI/Machine Learning right now. ML people can work for private industry, have access to enough big iron to get their work done, do the things that interest them, and never have to do some BS administrative thing or organise a conference or write a grant proposal. Even when companies 'only' offer 20% time for your own research, that's still arguably more pure research time than you get at most CS departments. The only thing that you're not actively doing when you work

  • What's the alternative? Suppose he completed his PhD. He wasn't going to stay in academia if he could make so much more money in the private sector.

    He probably should have leveled with the school all the same out of courtesy.
    • by Tailhook ( 98486 )

      What's the alternative?

      More money, obviously. Government should step in right now and fund the hell out of AI researchers at university. How ever much it takes. Why did you have to ask that? Your training should have provided this answer almost automatically.

      /s

      • Indeed. Many (some?) places worth their salt will pay their top people to go get their PhDs while avoiding the grad student slave wage.
    • It's quite surprising to me. Apple's UK machine learning centre is just down the road and they're unusual in that they're the only part of Apple that's allowed to publish research papers. If he's going there, he's almost certainly going to do something that would count towards a PhD, so I'd expect him to stay enrolled, take the salary from Apple, and submit a thesis in a year to get the PhD as well.
    • Yeah, the more surprising thing about this story is that he just disappeared without telling them.

  • The trouble is we're heading for another industrial revolution. And if you know your history that means decades of unemployment until some new tech comes along. We need political and social solutions for the near term. Or we can just accept a declined standard of living.
    • Or we can just accept a declined standard of living.

      Just like after the first industrial revolution ?

      • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @11:23AM (#55469925)

        Or we can just accept a declined standard of living.

        Just like after the first industrial revolution ?

        I am pretty sure you think you are sarcastically "showing up" the previous poster - but, yes, exactly like the First Industrial Revolution.

        The average per capita GDP went up (on average 1.7% a year) but the distribution of income got much more uneven, and the living conditions actually deteriorated for a large share of the population that made up the new working class and pauperism (being destitute) sky rocketed. There is excellent physical documentation of the declining standard of living among working class. Adult heights declined, lives shortened, the portion of recruits unfit for military service shot up. The urban slums and work houses of Dickens time were a product of the FIR.

        • Yep, there was a transition period of a few decades, before everybody profited from the increased productivity. That doesn't sound like a good reason to stop progress.

      • there were decades of poverty brought on by job displacement until the economy caught up. New automation tech put people out of work but it didn't necessarily employ them. They don't teach you about that in high school because a) the books try to keep an upbeat pro-America tone and b) you're lucky to get 20 pages on the topic.

        Where do you think the two World Wars came from?
  • Professor is a voluntary role best assumed by those whose passion is to teach and give back;
    pay comparable to working in industry to attract people who are after lots of $$$ is Not one of the benefits of being in academics VS practice.

    Eventually some will come around after their stint in private industry is over, or private industry will start giving back, because
    companies will want more people to be knowledgeable on the subject areas their business relies upon.

    Ultimately some fields are so specialize

    • The problem is not that the salary is lower, it's by how much the salary is lower. A lecturer (most junior tenured faculty position in a UK university) makes, after a PhD, about the same amount as a computer science graduate from a decent university makes in their first job. After about 15-20 years, if they make it to professor (the most senior faculty position), they're making about a quarter to a half of what a PhD graduate from a decent university will make after a couple of years in industry (or what
      • by mysidia ( 191772 )

        A lecturer (most junior tenured faculty position in a UK university) makes, after a PhD, about the same amount as a computer science graduate from a decent university makes in their first job.

        Of course.... their first job is not going to be lecturing though; It's going to require developing or using other skills together with what they learned in university in a real-world profitable endeavor.

        This is the path most people should take, unless you have an extremely strong passion to be a lecturer.
        Have a

  • Not a bad thing... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bradley13 ( 1118935 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:42AM (#55469617) Homepage

    I'm speaking as a professor at a university, and I don't see why this is a bad thing.

    Research at universities is a good thing, don't get me wrong, But R&D at companies is also valuable. In many cases even more valuable, because companies want research that actually leads to a practical result. Too many university researchers are farting around with abstract stuff of no foreseeable use to anyone, publishing useless results in write-only journals.

    Research at a company is measured on a different scale: can it be used for something? Who thinks we would have multi-core, multi-GHz processors in our pockets, if this hadn't been driven by commercial interests? A few ideas were developed at universities, but practically the entire computer revolution has been driven by commercial research. Maybe it's now time for AI to follow that route as well - we've fiddled with it in academia since the 1950s, but finally - finally - it may lead to something more than niche applications in the real world.

    • This. Maybe, as the article points out, we need some people to work for the government and think about regulation, but I don't see what universities are doing here.

      In CS (and AI in particular), a huge part of the research in universities is either obsolete, late compared to the industry, addressing the wrong problems, or just plain wrong. I can't say the same for private research papers ; except a few exceptions, they usually make sense. The reason is simple and is tied to the university research system :

  • Dont worry about Univs losing Artificial Intelligence experts. They have a lock on Natural Stupidity.
  • by WrongMonkey ( 1027334 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:43AM (#55469627)
    Every computationally related academic discipline has this problem. When our grad students get a little bit of bioinformatics/data science experience, they get scooped up by industry. Its very hard to recruit post-docs at salaries that can be covered by grant funded budget.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Its OK....they rather spend money on sports and stuff like that. Isn't that what college is about these days?

    • Most schools spend on sports the money that was income from sports. Eliminating sports at universities isn't going to suddenly give them an extra $50 million to spend elsewhere.
  • by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:49AM (#55469683)
    Money doesn't matter to everybody. I, for example, wouldn't leave a university research job for a private sector job. I have enough money. I can't be the only one.
  • Why Compete (Score:5, Interesting)

    by azadrozny ( 576352 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:53AM (#55469705)

    I would argue that if academia is completing for labor with industry in a particular area of study, then has advanced the technology enough to get out of the market. It is time to move on to some other area of research.

  • This is the PhD gamble. You hope that you learn enough and live long enough for your cutting edge research to find a practical purpose.

    Back in 2004 DARPA sponsored a 'small' project to drive cars autonomously. Lots of companies and schools threw warm bodies at the problem and for a few years it some of it was purely theoretical research.

    Then it reached a tipping point that a profitable end was in sight.

    Uber went in and cleaned out CMU's [theverge.com] autonomous vehicle department.

  • finally (Score:3, Insightful)

    by supernova87a ( 532540 ) <kepler1@hotmail.cGAUSSom minus math_god> on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:59AM (#55469755)
    And we're complaining that people with Ph.D.s, who normally go homeless in the real world, are managing to get high paying jobs?? We should be thanking the good fucking lord!
  • There are too many PhD graduates to fill in the open academic positions, even if you were to include temporary and teaching ones. And since industry companies not only offer good salaries, but often also good research opportunities (even if you cannot publish everything that you do), there is obviously a pull into that direction.

    I had very persistent friends who did multiple post-docs, and temporary positions to finally find a full time professor opportunity. I admire their passion. However that route has a

  • I'm not an academic but from looking at their job postings I can only assume they don't work for the salary so much so as it pays their bills while they get to work in academia: their BS positions pay what you can make at fast food and their MS and PhD positions pay what you can make with a BS in contract research.
  • by FeelGood314 ( 2516288 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @11:01AM (#55469771)
    Pay the salaries or stop complaining that you lose all your talent. We should be devoting at least a few percent of GDP to pure research. University should be a place for pure research but having our brightest minds chasing grants half the time and doing teaching, marking and committee work another 15 hours a week is a total waste basically means professors do their research for free on their own time. It is so frustrating the way we organize pure research at western universities. The USA also has other institutions that do leading edge research such as NASA and a few others. I can't even think of another famous non-american pure research organization other than CERN.

    Pay has to be competitive. Canada has to be the worst example of this. Canadian math and computer science departments essential are producing engineers for US companies. A friend just messaged me from California, I realized I was the only Canadian born engineer I knew still working in engineering in Canada and I work remotely for a US company! (sample size 100+ Canadian born colleagues from university or work, 200+ engineers I know well enough in Canada to know their background)
    • This is one of the main reasons US immigration policies are so destructive. They act as an attractive nuisance, destroying other countries' intellectual capital so that America, already rich, can get richer. That's it. These talented people are badly needed by their own countries, and they get sucked away because wealthy America can pay them better because it's wealthy. The rich get richer, the poor get fucked, as usual.
    • I can't even think of another famous non-american pure research organization other than CERN.

      The Max Planck Institute(s)? CNRS?

      To me at least it seems that in Germany, research is more concentrated in the institutes (people even do their PhDs there, I think) than in the universities - you have the public-funded Max Planck Institutes and the public/private (industry) co-funded Frauenhofer Institutes.

      In France, you have CNRS, which is a huge publicly-funded research organization, it's hard to get a job there, but once you do, you're more or less set for life. Or so they tell me.

      Having universities as

    • Pay the salaries or stop complaining that you lose all your talent. We should be devoting at least a few percent of GDP to pure research.

      We are, it's just moved away from universities and into the private sector.

      My $0.02 (STEM PhD with ~10 published articles, now I work for a big tech co in Silicon Valley): if you want to do better research, stop organizing university research into tiny little fiefdoms. Directors should be able to hire and supervise senior faculty. Senior faculty should be be able to hire and supervise junior faculty as well as grad students. There should be enough program management to get organizations with 100-500 total r

  • But it doesn't want to pay the money. So people choose what's better for their lives.

    And to most people who do AI/ML, it's probably the biggest break in their lifetime.

  • Don't forget that the core mission of any university is education. While schools are performing a lot more research these days, that research is always in the context of training. As a commercial scientist working with a lot of universities, I have been frustrated with the seemingly inefficient policies, facilities, and labor contracting at universities until I realized that good work rightly comes second to good teaching at a school. (For example, "education first" is why students have access to shared

  • ... because it's no longer, "academia," it's "Student Loan Corporation."

    We don't suffer from brain-drain because the education system, from bottom to top is shit. Americans are not prepared for university by the lower grades.

    "Foreigners" are prepared and take their skills to other countries.

    We suffer from pocket book drain and schools make money, not from teaching efforts, but from interest rates.

  • omg! People with marketable skills are getting hired? WHAT HAS THE WORLD COME TO?????
  • If you're any good, then you're working in industry. I learned that lesson as an undergrad.

  • AI bubble? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tony Isaac ( 1301187 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @12:09PM (#55470251) Homepage

    Every company these days thinks they need AI.

    This reminds me of how companies have been flocking to data warehousing during the past few years. They all want it. They don't know why they want it, but they've heard it's powerful, and that means they have to have it. Meanwhile, many of those same companies haven't really mastered the fundamentals of their relational databases.

    The result of this hype is that anybody who can convince a clueless hiring manager that they know something about AI...can get hired for exorbitant amounts of money.

    Yes, AI is good for many things. Companies like Apple and Google and IBM are putting it to good use. But many companies are just jumping on the bandwagon. Like all bubbles, this one will burst at some point.

  • First, there's no such thing as artificial intelligence, not in the true sense of the word "intelligence". The machines are just good at interpretive and predective logic. AI's definition was changed. In the true sense AI means artificial and intelligent. Artificial is true, but intelligence is missing.

    Second, why are Universities calling these guys scientists? They are just a specialization in the field of comp-sci. Technically you could call them scientists, but you'd need to call anyone graduating

  • After many years of reading and posting on this Slashdot, I'm out. The only people remaining here seem to be angry, old, self-centered Ayn-Rand-loving baby-men who begrudge everyone, whom they blame daily for their sad empty lives.

    It's been fun but I won't miss it.

  • by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi AT evcircuits DOT com> on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @12:55PM (#55470593) Homepage

    If they really needed that person, they really can compete. 5 times less than a 6-figure salary implies you were paying probably around 20-30k which is about average for a PhD student.

    That particular college has a $167M endowment, others in the US have billion dollar endowments. But yeah, they can't pay $100k for a good researcher.

    • by Njovich ( 553857 )

      The salaries offered by Google, Microsoft, etc. to higher level AI researchers are actually closer to 500k currently. Your point still stands though.

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