scorecardMicrosoft has set up an internal AI University to try and get around the skills shortage
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Microsoft has set up an internal AI University to try and get around the skills shortage

Microsoft has set up an internal AI University to try and get around the skills shortage
Tech4 min read


REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

  • Microsoft has set up its own internal "university" to train Microsoft staff in the field of artificial intelligence.
  • The company is also looking to hire people at machine learning conferences likes NIPS.
  • Chris Bishop, head of the Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge, said he's keen to avoid "hoovering" up AI professors from universities.

Microsoft has set up an internal "AI University" in a bid to help it overcome the skills shortage in the booming field of artificial intelligence (AI).

Chris Bishop, the director of a Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge, UK, told Business Insider that the Microsoft AI University is one of several schemes Microsoft has implemented to address the lack of talent in the field of AI, where there's fierce competition between tech firms to hire the best people.

"We have a thing called AI University, which is an internal education programme so that people who are incredibly smart and capable but trained in a different domain can quickly learn about machine learning both in a foundational sense but also in a practical sense of how to use it," said Bishop.

When it comes to AI talent, Microsoft is competing with the likes of Amazon and Apple, who also have research offices in Cambridge, as well as DeepMind (owned by Google), Facebook, Twitter, and many others.

Chris Bishop June 2015 Image 3


Chris Bishop is the head of a Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge.

The global battle for talent is raging because of the potential AI breakthroughs that bright minds stand to make in the next few years thanks to recent advances in computation power and the availability of vast data sets.

AI is now at the core of almost all of the big tech companies' major products (think Apple's iPhone, Amazon Echo, Microsoft Surface, etc) and even fairly small advances in areas like speech recognition and image search could have a big impact on profits.

In a bid to attract the most capable people, the multibillion dollar tech giants are offering annual salaries in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and some people leading AI-focused teams at these companies are earning over £1 million a year, according to multiple sources that Business Insider has spoken to.

How Microsoft is recruiting AI talent

Microsoft is also trying to bring people into the company by finding talent at conferences and sponsoring students through university on the condition that they take a job when they've finished studying.

The Redmond-headquartered company has set up a large stand at an AI conference in LA this week called NIPS (The Conference and Workshop on Neural Information Processing Systems), where Bishop and his team hope to recruit a number of people.

Cambridge computer science lab

Business Insider UK/Sam Shead

The computer science department at Cambridge University.

Unlike some other companies, Microsoft is keen to avoid hiring all the best AI professors straight out of university, according to Bishop.

"One of the things we're trying to avoid doing is simply going into a university, hoovering up all the top professors and then just leaving tumbleweed blowing down the corridors," he said.

"That might be a short term fix for some companies but I don't think it serves even the industry itself very well, let alone academia or the nation, to take that rather short term view."

Dozens of AI researchers have left Oxford and Cambridge over the last few years for what are likely to be better-paid roles at DeepMind, according to LinkedIn.

Irina Higgins, for example, left her role as a machine learning tutor at Oxford in April 2015 before joining DeepMind as a research scientist in June of the same year. Higgins also completed a PhD in computational neuroscience and artificial intelligence at Oxford before leaving to join DeepMind.

Salaries at DeepMind averaged $345,000 (£258,000) in 2016, according to UK regulatory filings cited by Bloomberg.

Bishop, who declined to comment on DeepMind's hiring, said his lab is funding masters degrees and PhDs at the University of Cambridge and other schools in a bid to spot talent early and get it on side.

"We try to work with them [universities] to fuel that talent pipeline," said Bishop. "So for example we're a major sponsor of a masters programme at Cambridge University." Bishop added that Microsoft Research has funded around 200 PhD scholarships at the centuries-old institution.

Other tech firms, including DeepMind, are also funding students through university but perhaps not on the same scale. Researchers from DeepMind are also giving AI and machine learning lectures to students, and some are even acting as PhD supervisors.

Staff from Microsoft Research in Cambridge also helped to develop the UK's new "computing" curriculum, which replaced ICT in 2014.

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