Without immigration reform and higher education, the US risks losing the race for AI talent  

The power of AI is transforming our daily lives, from facial recognition to ChatGPT, and fundamentally changing how critical U.S. industries like agriculture and manufacturing operate. This widespread use of AI has sparked congressional regulatory debate, President Biden’s Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence, and an explosion of state AI regulation. 

This extensive deployment of AI means nothing without a skilled, AI-ready workforce to ensure its ethical and unbiased application. Even with millions of STEM workers in America, more are needed to advance U.S. innovation in the area. Without intervention, we risk losing the race for AI talent. 

Building up the talent pipeline requires a multi-faceted approach. We must make reforms to ensure that foreign-born AI talent can stay in the United States to pursue industry and academic careers. This includes both individuals trained at universities in foreign countries and those trained in the U.S. 

If we fail to do either of these, the United States will almost certainly fall behind on technological innovation and global competitiveness in AI. 

Reform the US immigration system to attract and retain highly skilled AI talent 

The CEOs of several IT technology companies are foreign-born or foreign educated, including Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Several members of national commissions and boards also received their education in other countries before emigrating to the U.S. for their careers. 

The impact this STEM talent can have on U.S. AI innovation cannot be understated. In 2023, 42 percent of the top 50 U.S. AI companies had a founder who came to America as an international student, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. Two-thirds of full-time graduate students at U.S. universities in selected AI-related fields are international. Additionally, 45 percent of U.S. STEM employees with a doctoral degree are foreign-born, according to the National Science Foundation. 

Attracting and retaining foreign AI talent educated abroad and at U.S. universities is crucial. As an immigrant who built a successful career in technology and higher education, I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of forward-thinking immigration policy. As a university president, I can speak to the importance of educating these individuals at U.S. universities. 

Congress has taken action through the introduction of the bipartisan Keep STEM Talent Act of 2023  (S.2834) by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), which aims to streamline the path for international students with advanced STEM degrees from U.S. universities to stay in the United States. This bill highlights how legal, highly skilled immigration is vital to creating a strong U.S. STEM workforce and advancing AI. 

Yet more can still be done. 

The United States must expand the number of employer-sponsored H1-B visas available to U.S. university trained AI talent. The annual H1-B visa cap set by Congress is low and cannot meet the pace of AI innovation, as foreign workers currently on H1-B visas are disproportionately concentrated in STEM. Computer-related STEM occupations made up 69.5 percent of all approved H1-B petitions in 2021, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

We must also make the O-1 visa, for individuals who possess extraordinary ability in the fields of science, art, education, business or athletics, more accessible to AI talent trained at U.S. universities, by broadening the definition of “extraordinary ability” to incorporate exceptional AI talent. 

The creation of an emerging and disruptive technology visa would also open another avenue for foreign AI talent trained at U.S. universities to enter the workforce. Granting green cards to STEM Ph.D. students graduating from U.S. universities would unlock a tremendous caliber of AI talent. 

Integrate AI across the education system  

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) recently called for 1 million people to be trained and reskilled in AI, and education institutions nationwide are answering that call. U.S. universities are investing heavily in undergraduate and graduate AI degree programs and hiring top AI faculty to meet demand for a highly skilled AI workforce. Given AI’s cross-disciplinary nature, it should be infused across all higher education curricula to ensure that students can learn these critical skills. 

We must also continue to retrain and reskill the existing workforce in AI. The infusion of AI curricula in community colleges and workforce development programs are essential to this effort. Additionally, expanding AI literacy at the K-12 level through curricula would help seed interest in future AI careers. 

Leverage research universities to provide students with real-world experience 

For educational institutions with research infrastructure, a focus on emerging technologies like AI through public-private partnership models is critical to helping students earn real-world “job” experience. 

Fast-moving fields like AI not only require formal education but also hands-on learning that can only be gained through research opportunities and internships in the public and private sectors. Building an effective pipeline of talent requires strong collaboration across academia, government and industry, and higher education institutions are uniquely positioned to help. 

Staying globally competitive in AI means attracting, cultivating and preserving top talent. If the United States does not invest in all AI talent, the shortage of qualified practitioners for AI roles will continue to grow, hamstringing the U.S. economy and, ultimately, harming our national power. 

José-Marie Griffiths, B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc., is president of Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, and a former commissioner of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. She has spent her career in research, teaching, public service, corporate leadership, economic development, and higher education administration. 

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