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US visa restrictions may open new options for AI students

What US may lose might be gain for others, as new demands emerge elsewhere

On 22 June 2020, US president Donald Trump signed an executive order, enforcing certain strict restriction related to the US immigration policy. That was nothing new anyway, because ever since he was elected Trump was vocal about migrants grabbing a sizeable share in the US pie. Right from the mammoth wall defining the Mexican border to creating panic over US citizens losing their jobs to foreign workers – the current US administration seems to be going against the historical trend of America being the big melting pot of diverse ethnicity. The June 22 order, however had a more immediate effect. Among other visa restrictions, it suspended issuing of the H-1B, the most popular item among foreign talents seeking to work in the US.This is definitely going to affect Indian technology students looking for shining careers at the Silicon Valley. But it might hurt the USeven more and create new avenues in AI-based careers elsewhere. Let us explore, how.

The H-1B visa is a 3-year work permit granted to foreign workers with specialisations in certain state-of-the-art knowledge domain. Information Technology and its several subdivisions come under its purview. The H-1B is the primary resourcing tool in the hands of US tech majors, through which it employs thousands of IT talent from other countries – the greater part of them coming from Asia, more specifically India and China. With the current restrictions coming into force, both recruiters and job-seekers are worried about the future. And experts fear, this is going to severely impact critical and emerging technologies in the US – Artificial Intelligence being the most crucial among them.

As in several technological areas, the greater part of AI specialists working in the US comes from other countries. Recent statistics reveal, nearly 70% undergraduate researchers at US-based AI institutes hails from abroad. China contributes 27%, India 11%, while all the European countries put together also adds up to 11%. The figures are difficult to ignore, especially because AI is a domain where innate talent matters more than rote-learning. Not anyone can pick up the strings after going through a random AI course and start working. This is where the US is severely handicapped. Experts argue that refusing entry or sending back foreign talent implies that there is enough talent within the country to fill up every such vacancy and keep the industry running. That was never true for the US in any technological domain – and for a super-specialised cutting-edge technology like AI, it is an impossibility.

Undergraduate researchers at US-based AI institutes
Source analysis: MacroPolo. Graph courtesy MIT Technology Review

Since its early days, the AI-industry in the US had been plagued with lack of ready availability of talent – and restricted immigration was always a major cause. AI requires on-your-toes innovation, and if your best innovators mostly hail from foreign lands and are plagued with constant bureaucratic hassles and uncertainties throughout their duration of stay – the industry overall becomes unstable too. In fact, Oren Etzioni, the CEO of Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, had specifically raised this point in February 2019 as the Trump administration announced the formulation of a national AI Strategy. Etzioni was concerned that the strategy looked away from visa issues faced by foreign AI specialists. And every major US tech company had corroborated that this, indeed, was a grave problem in the US AI fraternity.

Granted that situations are tough as the COVID-19 pandemic corrodes economic foundations of every nation. Joblessness is indeed a burning problem for the US, and Trump has his own electorate to please before the upcoming elections. Thus, it is not clear what happens next, how long the restrictions would be in force, or whether relaxations would be made based on industry demands. And this lack of clarity is making recruiters at the US, and prospective AI job-seekers elsewhere in the world, nervous.

But competition is cut-throat, and other nations are zooming in on this situation to reap AI-harvest. Canada has already put up billboards in and around Silicon Valley, California, that says: “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada.”And waiting in the wings are France, the United Kingdom and Australia. These countries – particularly Canada – are pushing ahead full steam with AI research. They are conscious of the fact that the US AI resource-pool is mostly overseas, and the current visa-freeze could just be the opportunity they had been looking for so long. All these nations are aiming to relax immigration rules and processes – with no upper limits whatsoever, and minimum processing periods of below three months.

Even the historic Manhattan Project – initiated 81 years ago to develop the first nuclear bomb and establish US supremacy over the rest of the world–heavily depended on foreign scientists who had emigrated to the US from various European nations to avoid the despotic clutches of Adolf Hitler. The greatest theoretical physicist of modern times, Albert Einstein himself, is also a case in point. This inward flow of world’s best talents had transformed US universities into fertile breeding grounds of technology and research, and every year they take home crateful of Nobel Prizes. Whatever may be his agenda, Trump’s recent decision may just reverse that trend.

For Indian IT and AI professionals, this could be the opening of new opportunities in new geographies. Moreover, since AI and machine algorithm are sure to take leading roles in the post-COVID scenario, R&D positions in India will get a huge boost. With doors in the US closing, Indian AI institutes might get to retain the best of our national talent – at the right price of course!

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