If you're looking for a job, here's a tip: AI has taken centre stage in India but is short on talent

2nd Jan 2019
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With the world and India adding new AI jobs almost every day, it is time for the Indian professional – with an average AI experience of 3 years – to upskill in order to keep pace with the growing demand.

Image: Shutterstock

The future of the world seems to be in the hands of artificial intelligence (AI). From behemoths like Amazon and Alibaba to small startups in Tier II towns of India, every founder is focusing on AI, on algorithms that can help their business impress customers, consumers, and investors.

In one sense, AI is basically a bunch of algorithms that learn constantly and take actions cognitively when challenged with complex tasks; it is preceded by machine learning, which is also an algorithm that understands a specific task by learning from patterns pertaining to that specific task.

More than 1,000 companies in India claim to be working on artificial intelligence in some form. This includes a small number of companies creating products (chatbots, visual search and recommendation engines, etc) and a larger chunk offering services such as offshore software development, recruitment, or training. There has been a 30 percent year-on-year increase in the number of companies setting up dedicated AI teams in India according to Great Learning.

But despite the hoopla around AI, one thing is crystal clear: India is facing a dearth of talent.

Where's the AI talent?

A study on the Indian AI industry by Great Learning, an online education company for working professionals, indicates that more than 4,000 positions remain vacant in India due to a shortage of qualified talent at the mid and senior levels. This is despite the industry growing by close to 30 percent in the last one year to $230 million in size.

These opportunities do not include the slew of new jobs advertised every month; the numbers refer to opportunities that have been vacant for 12 months.

Where is the demand coming from?

The need for AI talent has been fuelled by companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. In his annual letter to Amazon employees this year, Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said:

“Big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organisations to embrace. We’re in the middle of an obvious one right now: machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

Bezos added that over the past decades, computers have broadly automated tasks that programmers could describe with clear rules and algorithms. Modern machine learning techniques now allow us to do the same for tasks where describing precise rules is much tougher.

At Amazon, engineers have been engaged in the practical application of machine learning for many years now. Some of this work is highly visible: their autonomous Prime Air delivery drones; the Amazon Go convenience store that uses machine vision to eliminate checkout lines; and Alexa, the cloud-based AI assistant.

Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is trying to lower costs and barriers to machine learning and artificial intelligence so organisations of all sizes can take advantage of these advanced techniques. AWS CEO Andy Jassy recently said AWS is creating the data libraries and tools that will help organisations do the heavy lifting of data.

“AI is going to change lives; it is not going to take away jobs. Every day it is creating so many new roles for engineers, and we are not able to fill those roles faster,” Andy said at a recent event in Las Vegas.

Last year, Amazon put out more than 1,000 postings for artificial intelligence jobs in the US; Google had more than 500 postings in the US.

The demand is high in India as well

Kamal Karanth, Co-founder of Xpheno, which works on offering talent solutions, says: “There are not many AI experts in India. But, the opportunity and demand is tremendous, especially with other countries like the US and China putting their weight behind the opportunities of using AI in business and daily life.”

Why is it tougher in India?

Hemanth G, CTO of logistics tech startup LOBB, says: “It is tough to get a good AI developer. Not only is there a dearth of talent, but whatever talent is available is scooped up by larger cloud infrastructure companies. However, that is a good thing because they will build all the tools necessary to build AI applications, which a startup cannot afford. Making it easier to train our developers."

Hemanth adds that he would prefer to train engineers afresh to use artificial intelligence tools rather than scout for an engineer with qualifications.

According to Great Learning, the key reason is the massive shortage of AI talent at the middle and top level.

Of the current working professionals in India, almost 55 percent have less than five years of total work experience. Only 23 percent of this workforce has over 10 years of total work experience.

AI, talent, AI Jobs, India

The average AI experience of Indian professionals stands at a mere three years, with almost 67 percent AI professionals in India having joined/transitioned to their current role only in the last two years.

In contrast, the report says, around 57 percent organisations that are hiring for AI in India are looking for candidates with more than five years of experience.

This supply-demand gap indicates a huge opportunity for mid and senior-level professionals looking to transition into AI over the next few years across industries like IT, finance, healthcare, and ecommerce.

What are employers looking for?

Which are the organisations with the highest demand for AI talent? In 2018, these included IBM, Accenture, Amazon, Fractal Analytics, Societe Generale, SAP Labs, 24/ 7 Customer, Atos, Nvidia and Tech Mahindra. The top skill sets that employers are looking for are machine learning, natural language processing, neural networks, analytics, cloud computing, and pattern recognition.

That said, India still has a long way to go – it contributes only 10 percent to global AI job openings.

When it comes to remuneration, the median salary of AI professionals in India is Rs 14.3 lakh across all experience levels and skill sets. Forty percent of AI professionals have an entry-level salary of Rs 6 lakh and above. Around 4 percent in India command a salary higher than Rs 50 lakh, reflecting the massive demand for mid and senior-level talent. The study also points out that salary trends across various industries like finance, ecommerce, and healthcare are also improving steadily.

A city-wise remuneration comparison reveals that Mumbai is the highest paymaster in AI at almost Rs 15.6 lakh per annum, followed by Bengaluru at Rs 14.5 lakh. Chennai is the lowest at Rs 10.4 lakh.

It’s AI, not rocket science!

According to a report by Tencent Research Institute, there are close to 300,000 AI researchers in China. There are no definite numbers for researchers and engineers using AI in the US. But, investors say most AI today is machine learning and the existing talent pool can learn this very fast in India as well.

Take Infosys’ Nia, a horizontal platform that provides cognitive capabilities. Infosys will white-label AI for several organisations using Nia. “Horizontal capabilities are going away and will be dominated by a few platforms like Microsoft while Google will dominate the AI engine. Our strategy is to build something on top of this, and not create our own platform,” says U.B. Pravin Rao, COO of Infosys.

Infosys has more than 200,000 employees; more than 90 percent of its workforce is trained in transformative digital technologies. The autonomous way of approaching business is the future; you don’t need armies of people managing incidents. So Nia can work in any place that generates data. Clearly, if the IT services industry is gearing up for AI, it is time for working professionals to sharpen their skills.

As Hari Krishnan Nair, Co-Founder of Great Learning, puts it, “With AI being a nascent sector in India, the industry is facing a huge skill gap when it comes to filling senior and mid-level positions. The field holds great potential for working professionals as AI will continue to make a huge dent across sectors. This is the right time to enter the field and be at the forefront of these changes.”


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