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    Professor on UK Brain Drain: We'd Be Able to Retain People With More Investment

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    Britain is facing an artificial intelligence “brain drain” as Silicon Valley raids its top universities for talent. Sputnik spoke to Professor Peter Cowling, Professor of Computer Science at the University of York (@aiprof) about the effects it will have on British universities and tech companies.

    Sputnik: So it’s been revealed that around a third of leading machine learning and AI specialists who have left the UK’s top institutions are currently working at Silicon Valley tech firms. What does this mean for these universities that specialize in these subjects?

    Peter: The impact on universities is sort of positive. There is a lot of hype, a lot of interest and obviously a lot of achievement in machine learning and AI at the moment. Courses in the UK and at UK universities are doing really well – the research funding landscape is better than it’s ever been. The UK is producing more and more people who are trained in machine learning and AI and producing more and more ideas that are feeding into products. The unfortunate thing is some of those best people and some of product ideas, the money and the profits are being made in Silicon Valley. For universities, I think we are doing pretty well out of the growth in subject of machine learning and AI. It would be nice to think that the investment landscape in the UK was slightly different – if there was more investment I’m sure we would be able to retain some of these people.

    Sputnik: More than a tenth have moved to North American universities and nearly a tenth are currently working for other smaller US companies. Meanwhile just one in seven have joined British start-ups. What does this mean for British startups and tech companies? Are we at risk of losing specialized talent in the UK to American companies?

    Peter: I think that’s true. Of course there is a risk that if we lose talented people then economically, that could be bad for UK industry. I can see that, although, the number of people emerging with qualifications is increasing all the time and in fact increasing at a very high rate. Maybe the landscape is not quite so bleak but the actual numbers, because whilst the actual numbers and percentages sound rather dire, the actual numbers might not be too bad. We are living in a global market place and more and more in areas where, like, work is done virtually over the internet. If somebody is doing their work in California, the only real downside is that the profits stay in the USA. I think the ideas; there is pretty rapid and good transmission of ideas, especially from the labs and certainly from the companies.

    Sputnik: Finally, what do we need to see from say education bodies, the government and even companies in the UK to keep this retention of talent in Britain?

    Peter: There has been an increase in funding from research and technology developments in AI and machine learning. I think given the ambitions revealed by Wendy Hall, in her report, that increase is not nearly big enough yet and still has quite a long way to go. The other side is the investment side, so the transmission of research ideas into products and services that people will pay money for, and I think in the UK that is rather poor. I think UK universities are often relatively greedy in terms of the percentage of equity of they want when people produce ideas. There is still an emergent of risk and a very different attitude towards the start of ups of AI and machine learning. I think there are many startups that could happen, but are killed in the cradle by the lack of investment funding and also a lack of the expertise that makes that investment funding work, when technical people who have no management expertise want to advertise something. I think that the distinctiveness that’s based on giving people what they need rather than what they are willing to pay money for, right now, is something that we can retain and win as well.

    The views expressed in this article are those of the speaker, and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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