The Fourth Industrial Revolution is now in full sway, with the dawn of robots, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles already visible, and set only to grow.
In light of this gathering momentum, the recent revelation that universities (especially those in the UK) are suffering a brain drain in the AI field is a surprising one.
The article’s author, Ian Sample, paints a pessimistic picture: “British universities are being stripped of artificial intelligence (AI) experts in a brain drain to the private sector that is hampering research and disrupting teaching at some of the country’s leading institutions.”
Some facts particularly stand out to underline the gravity of this mounting issue. In March, one of the country’s leading AI researchers, Zoubin Ghahramani, was poached by Uber from Cambridge University. A trio of prominent Oxford professors have since followed suit and joined Google.
There are understandable reasons for doing so.
Firstly, the pay is significantly better in the private sector. Young researchers at the top of their game can expect to enter into private technology on a salary of £80,000 to £200,000, according to a Guardian survey. As well as the lucrative yield, job prospects are salubrious; the economist Mariano Mamertino estimates that there are now twice as many available jobs in the sector as there are job seekers in the UK. This combination is either something of a Holy Grail, or a perfect storm, depending on whether one approaches it from the side of private innovation and innovators, or the future of AI higher education.
Secondly, leaders in an emerging and exciting field may prefer to be part of the front, rather than narrating from the rear. The cutthroat nature of competition dictates that today’s opportunity may well be tomorrow’s missed chance. Whilst educating future generations is undoubtedly a vital and rewarding duty, the lure of ambition is proving too tempting for many.
This amounts to a serious problem for the UK, and wherever else begins to suffer similar trends. As the brightest minds are lured by the titans across the Atlantic, British tech innovation risks becoming increasingly sclerotic. The economy will consequentially suffer from a dearth of activity in a technology sector which is set to dominate economical models far more than it does now.
This is the worry posed to the cold hard numbers and statistics. But a perhaps far less tangible, yet more insidious one exists, hinted at by Imperial’s Maja Pantic in the aforementioned article:
“The majority of top people who leave academia move to Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. The real problem is these people are not dispersed through society. The intellect and expertise is concentrated in a small number of companies.”
The reality is that this recently exposed drain fits unsettlingly into pre-existing socio-economic trends. Super-companies – most notably the FAANG group – are expanding their market share at giddy rates, creating monopolies and stifling the success of smaller, more niche rivals (Horizons have already explored this phenomenon in a previous blog article). As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace, expect to see these few names hegemonise, and dictate, more and more areas of life.
Add to this shrinking individuality in technology the dwindling prospect of an education provided by experts, and the inaccessibility of our future is exacerbated. A new society is being built by a minutial percentage of its members. This is not necessarily disastrous, nor unprecedented, but the degree to which it risks being alienated from the grasp of nearly everybody is alarming.
After the global Ransomware attack in May, we warned of the dangers of mass ignorance about the cyber bedrock of everyday life, arguing the case for basic technological education for all:
“This is not a development of the argument that technology and the sciences are more valued by contemporary society than the humanities. Given the existing dearth in sufficient IT education, it is in fact more about realising the importance of technology in the daily lives of all citizens, not just those working in the sector. Last week’s cyberattack provides a wake-up call that dependence on technology is ever-increasing, and so too must our ability to use and understand it.”
Concerningly, our latent digital-based society appears to have an accessibility problem both at grassroots and upper echelon level. Those reliant upon it but not involved live at its mercy, whilst those aspiring to be active in its development are fighting for diminishing space in a less and less educationally-tailored environment.
In November, our co-founder Kydd Boyle attended the Summit LA17 event. He reflected on the role that Silicon Valley might have in shaping the rest of the world. As is visible pretty much everywhere you look, on or offline, this is far from a dramatic consideration.
But Kydd goes further than simply stating that these companies shall dominate the near future as brands and product lines. “What is also clear from Summit is that the LinkedIn and Facebook worlds are converging in the new millennial tech-driven environment. This new-age culture… is a challenge to the traditional work mentality captured by Dolly Parton: “9 to 5 for service and devotion… it would be presumptuous to assume that it will not permeate greater society.”
Whilst it is clear that Silicon Valley will continue to dismantle the traditional regimented working mentality in pursuit of maximising innovation and individuality, I am not sure that I share Kydd’s confidence that the rest of society will follow suit.
As shown amply above, the Californian tech hub will continue to mould 21st century life by steering the direction of travel of technology. But this alienated control – where what we use and how we use it is prescribed by faceless brands – may well be the reason that these companies struggle to administer our behaviour. That vital trust we develop through tangible connections is missing.
I trust Apple enough to use its apps for online banking. I put the success of my journey in Google’s hands when I use Google Maps. I have faith in Amazon’s delivery capabilities ahead of Christmas when I order gifts on their site. But I am not sure that I would blindly follow advice regarding life choices from these companies (at least excluding the subliminal influence they all undoubtedly have on me already). This is the paradox which makes me sceptical about the ability of Silicon Valley to shape society more aggressively or explicitly than through the ubiquity of its products and services.
We face living in a world whose mechanism few truly understand, and even fewer play an active role in developing and sustaining. Perhaps for this very reason, however, the ever-extending reach of tech giants seems likely to fall short of a more sinister pervasion of our lives. The system might be destined to travel further out of our control, but our role in it will remain firmly in our hands.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks