Career and Jobs

The Importance Of Immigrants For The Future Of Tech

The importance of migrants was underlined during the Covid-19 crisis when it was revealed that the founders of both BioNTech and Moderna, two of the companies at the forefront of the development of a vaccine against the virus, are immigrants to the United States and Germany respectively.

This should perhaps come as no surprise. After all, I wrote recently about the importance of immigrants for jobs, after new research from Kellogg School of Management showed that immigrants actually create a huge number of jobs by virtue of their entrepreneurial abilities.

Wharton research further elaborates on this point by pointing out that immigrant founders not only create jobs, but also bring considerable finance with them. The authors state that cross-border VC investment is now at record levels, with this in large part due to the increasingly international nature of entrepreneurship.

Driving AI

It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that recent research from MIT’ CSAIL lab has shown that while American continues to lead the way in the development of artificial intelligence, much of the actual breakthroughs are driven by foreign-born scientists.

The researchers assessed improvements made to the key sections of AI over the past 70 years, and found that around two-thirds of the gains in that time were delivered by researchers at North American universities. What is important, however, is that in the last 30 years, over 75% of these breakthroughs have come from foreign-born scientists.

“If we want the United States to continue to be ground zero for computer science, we need to make sure that our policies make it easy to continue to bring host international researchers to join our institutions,” the researchers say.

A broken pipeline

Research from Cornell suggests, however, that this is a pipeline that is increasingly dysfunctional. The paper highlights how despite many foreign-born Ph.D. graduates applying for jobs at tech startups, and indeed receiving offers to work for them, a large number of them fail to actually take up those jobs due to visa issues.

Instead, those people were much more likely to work at larger tech companies who have the resources and expertise to help them navigate the Kafka like H-1B and permanent residency process.

It’s a situation that has also been chronicled by researchers from Georgetown University, who found that restrictive immigration policies are hampering the ability of American firms to recruit and retain the kind of AI talent they need.

“Historically, immigrants have helped America lead the world in technological innovation,” the authors say. “Artificial intelligence is no exception. Foreign-born talent fuels the U.S. AI sector at every level, from student researchers in academic labs to foreign and naturalized workers in leading companies.”

The study reveals that foreign-born talent plugs a crucial hole in the AI talent marketplace, with the hole likely to persist and even grow in the coming years. A laborious and out-of-date immigration policy is thus hindering the competitiveness of American AI firms because they cannot recruit or retain the talent they need to thrive.

Fragile ground

This could have profound implications for the hegemony of Western nations in the development of AI. The MIT researchers highlight that while residents of Europe and North America making up just 15% of the global population, they’ve contributed over 75% of the breakthroughs in AI.

The free movement of people has been crucial to that, as people with considerable natural talent have been able to move to countries where that talent not only has the opportunity to flourish, but the peer group to help support their work.

This was emphasized clearly by research from McKinsey a few years ago, which highlighted that 35% of the 247 million or so people who live outside their country of birth are highly skilled migrants with at least a tertiary education. What’s more, these migrants are typically significantly more qualified than the native population.

What’s more, research from the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy goes further still and directly measures the impact of migrants on innovation. It shows that bringing in talent from abroad not only helps with the birth of new products and phasing out of older ones, but also has an impact on corporate profits and consumer wellbeing.

“We found companies with higher rates of H-1B workers increased product reallocation–the ability for companies to create new products and replace outdated ones, which in turn, grows revenue,” the authors say. “This discourse could have far reaching implications for U.S. policy, the profitability of firms, the welfare of workers, and the potential for innovation in the economy as a whole.”

Brain drain

The findings come at a time when countries such as the United Kingdom and United States have been gripped by populist politicians who have risen to power in large part due to opposition to immigration. Recent research from Vienna University of Economics and Business highlights how the “hostile environment” created in the U.K. has been driving foreign-born scientists from their shores, with a particular exodus occurring since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

A similar picture was painted of the U.S. by research from Ohio State University, which revealed that a growing number of Chinese researchers are leaving the country and taking their ideas and intellect with them.

The study found that around 16,000 researchers have returned to China from overseas in the last few years, with 4,500 leaving the United States alone. That’s roughly twice the number who were leaving per year in 2010. It’s a trend that is helping to turn China into a true scientific powerhouse.

The West has undoubtedly been a driving force in the development of AI over the past 70 years, but if restrictive immigration policies continue to dominate, it is highly likely that other regions will drive the next generation of AI.

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