The United States is in a competition for global talent, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution[i] reshapes much of the world. The United States must engage in a major new challenge– a holistic Artificial Intelligence international competition while addressing the age-old American conundrum surrounding immigration policy. The job outlook for technical professionals, specifically those in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, has never been brighter. These professionals have many opportunities where they can balance their desire for intellectual stimulation, impact, work culture, and compensation. For many organizations, the demand for AI talent greatly outstrips supply. This is in stark contrast to other sectors of the U.S. and global economy, which face the double challenges of a recession and the ongoing pandemic. Societal disruption from increasing automation looms as greater productivity continues to be achieved from a smaller workforce.
While the competitive job market is good news for AI professionals, the accelerating demand for these skills leaves many positions unfilled. The United States is unable to produce the requisite domestic talent at scale. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) report[ii] acknowledges this massive talent deficit that the United States faces, including enhanced global talent competition, troublesome flat rates of AI-compatible skills among American graduates, especially when compared to advanced countries – both allied and adversary - and the degree to which the U.S. relies on the immigration of talent to help it remain competitive. For example, the NSCAI reports that only 71,000 new computer scientists graduate from American universities each year, while in 2020 alone, there were more than 430,000 open computer science jobs in the United States, a number that will continue to grow rapidly.[iii]
With these conditions in mind, the U.S. should carefully consider its national policies regarding the recruitment, growth, acquisition, nurture, and retention of AI talent. The NSCAI has several education focused initiatives detailed in their report, including a capstone initiative for a Digital Service Academy[iv]. However, even if the NSCAI’s recommendations for expanding and growing domestic AI talent in America are adopted en masse and aggressively, it will still take years – if not decades – to overcome the current talent deficit.
The United States must renew its leadership in technology broadly, and AI specifically, by producing the best educated and qualified individuals domestically while simultaneously attracting and retaining the best foreign talent. Both rely on a key foundational initiative– the U.S. needs to be the preferred global home for this talent to live, work, and thrive, both professionally and personally.
Immigration remains a hot-button political issue for many Americans. Proponents of more restrictive immigration policies highlight the imperative of legal pathways, the specter of crime and terrorism, and fears that foreign workers will undercut the domestic labor market. These are real issues and should not be easily dismissed. However, political dispositions that avoid comprehensive immigration reform have diminished American competitiveness. Instead, highly sought-after AI professionals from many parts of the world will choose to build value for other nations. However, the growing risks and national security implications of losing technological primacy are neither immediately obvious nor well understood. A commonly shared American perception and angst of falling behind has reemerged after being largely absent for several generations. The Soviet launch of Sputnik gave rise to the last prominent, widespread American self-perception as the underdog and subsequently spurred the U.S. to rapidly increase government support of science and technology, overhaul the national education system for STEM[v], and create new organizational models for technological creativity and innovation, that included NASA[vi] and DARPA[vii]. Similar perceptions had begun to emerge about Japan in the 1980s but were subsumed by the post-Cold War slowdown of the Japanese economy and victory against the Soviet Union.
The United States developed and maintained global primacy in technology during the 20th century through a combination of its world-class research universities and K-12 education pipelines, along with its unique pragmatism and entrepreneurial spirit. There was widespread sentiment around the world that anyone seeking the best university or graduate education must study in the U.S. Additionally, when talented immigrants came to the US to study, there was a strong likelihood they would not return to their country of origin and instead find better professional and personal opportunities in the U.S. Despite the acceleration of digital learning pathways, many talented and ambitious people are still interested in immigrating to the U.S., and if given a reasonable opportunity, will remain and contribute to the U.S. economy.
Understandably, most companies in the United States today prefer to hire someone whose immigration status is uncomplicated. The challenges and risks inherent in navigating the current visa process are a massive expense for overhead and time. However, even with major national initiatives, the U.S. will not be able to produce enough domestic talent to satisfy its need for technological talent. In short, Congress should fully and aggressively adopt key recommendations from NSCAI for talent cultivation, recruitment, development, and retention, with emphasis on streamlining immigration processes for securing AI talent for the United States. Only then can America win the competition for global AI talent.
To externally source AI talent, the American immigration system and pathways must be simplified to attract and incentivize AI-talented foreign workers to stay and thrive in the U.S. The bi-partisan National Security Innovation Pathway Act[viii] and the NSACI’s recommendation to Congress to pass a National Security Immigration Act, including the elimination of green card caps for specific technical talent[ix], are several examples of much needed proposals. Talent will be drawn to and thrive in a system that is clear and reasonable to navigate. Ultimately, the U.S. can be the most attractive permanent destination for top foreign-born AI talent[x]. Since 2012, when Beijing first designated AI a “special discipline”, over half of top Chinese AI talent has ended up in America[xi] . Coupling aggressive action with an ambitious appetite for immigration reform, the United States could easily supplant China’s “Thousand Talents” program with an American-style “Million Talents’ effort to welcome AI talent from around the world. The Commission’s specific recommendation to grant Green Cards to all students graduating with STEM PhDs from accredited American universities would be a clear demonstration of this intent. If given the chance, top AI talent will not only immigrate to the U.S. but stay and collaborate with a growing pool of domestic American talent. Together they can help fuel the American engine of economic prosperity.
Harrison Schramm is President-Elect of the Analytics Society of INFORMS, a Principal Research Scientist at Group W, and a Non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)
Christopher Bassler, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at CSBA. He previously worked as a civilian in the Department of Defense, including as an engineer, researcher, technologist, and strategist.
[iv] We have written about this previously here: https://warontherocks.com/2020/09/making-a-u-s-digital-service-academy-work/