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Alibaba, Naver, Didi battle for AI talent

In L.A., tech titans face off at an aggressive recruitment tournament

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang (right, facing) is surrounded by students at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems in Los Angeles in December.

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- As artificial intelligence becomes indispensable in fields such as autonomous driving and advanced medicine, the global war for top talent among the leading tech companies is heating up.

The 31st Annual Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, or NIPS, held in Los Angeles earlier this month, was a battlefield for talent -- the most aggressive recruitment ever, according to a regular participant. Chinese and South Korean companies were especially energetic.

Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing and e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, as well as top South Korean internet portal Naver all had prominent booths. Didi was sandwiched between Google and Apple, while Naver sat prominently next to Apple.

Companies that spent lavishly to support the conference got prime locations, reflecting their eagerness to promote their brands.

Didi specifically came to hire talent from around the world, a company official said, adding that the company cannot succeed in globalizing its operations if it relies exclusively on people it hires in China.

A Naver official said the company welcomes people capable of building AI platforms, irrespective of nationality or age.

Seller's market

For students and engineers with the right skills, it is a seller's market. Paychecks are soaring as universities cannot turn out enough people to meet demand. The global shortage of AI engineers is estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

The average annual starting pay for Ph.D holder is $200,000, said a 25-year-old Chinese doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, happily. He said he has even heard talk of a $300,000 offer.

NIPS is known as the world's leading AI academic society. Researchers are seen as being at the top of their fields if NIPS gives them the opportunity to present their papers, said a researcher at a Japanese university.

Nearly 8,000 people attended the 2017 conference, a sixfold increase from seven years earlier. More than 70 companies had booths in the hopes of recruiting from the top-notch doctoral students attending from around the world.

The only Japanese presence was a booth of the Tokyo-based venture business Preferred Networks.

NIPS started the annual conference largely as an informal gathering of researchers. Before long, U.S. and European information technology companies became eager to attend to showcase their AI-based programs.

Students of computer science and statistics are leading candidates to become AI developers. Companies recruit students versed in programming languages and data analysis, and further educate them as they expand their AI programs. 

Where are the Japanese?

Google and other big, cash-rich tech companies have been leading the way. A researcher at Element AI, a Canadian venture business present at the conference, said he and virtually all of his colleagues had received e-mailed job offers from Google and Facebook.

In the evenings, Nvidia and U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla hosted parties, with Tesla CEO Elon Musk regaling students on how his company is making major efforts to develop AI applications.

The absence of Japanese companies raised the question of whether they have already forfeited the race to create the technologies of tomorrow.

A Naver official said Japanese companies were losing ground by not being at the NIPS conference. He dismissed the suggestion that Japan had the image of leading the way in AI.

One Chinese student said that while Tokyo is an attractive place of work, there are no companies there that meet his conditions.

In 2018, NIPS will hold its conference in the Canadian city of Montreal. Will the Japanese be there?

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