Musk Paying AI Experts Over a Million a Year

A tax filing from non-profit AI research lab OpenAI revealed salaries for researchers as high as $1.9 million. The exorbitant wages are a result of high demand and very little talent.
Loukia Papadopoulos

This week, a journalist for The New York Times happened to fall upon a tax filing from Elon Musk’s artificial intelligence non-profit research lab OpenAI. What he read there made headlines around the world.

The New York Times reported that, in 2016, the lab paid researchers Ilya Sutskever and Ian Goodfellow, more than $1.9 million and more than $800,000 respectively and roboticist Pieter Abbeel, $425,000. Sutskever and Goodfellow came from Google while Abbeel was at the University of California, Berkeley.

A growing demand for AI experts

The opulent salaries are representative of a growing demand for AI expertise, a field few are qualified in. According to a December 2017 report from Chinese tech giant Tencent, compiled by the Tencent Research Institute, there are just 300,000 “AI researchers and practitioners” in the world compared to the millions needed.


This is not the first time The New York Times writes about AI specialists’ giant salaries. The same author, Cade Metz, wrote a similar article in December of 2017.

However, back then, the estimated salary range was $300,000 to $500,000 a year. The issues with the talent shortage, however, remain the same.

Universities losing experts

The current salaries offered by tech giants are pulling specialists away from universities and teaching institutes making it harder to train a next generation equipped to meet this ever-growing demand for AI expertise. And as exorbitant as the newly discovered OpenAI salaries may seem, higher offers are common.

Sutskever told The New York Times he turned down offers for “multiple times” his OpenAI salary. The reason behind his decision, he said, was his belief that his wages would increase with the lab’s growth. 

Indeed, researchers at companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are estimated to make even more money than Sutskever because they are also given stock options. As a non-profit, OpenAI does not offer stock.

Many worry the talent shortage will not be alleviated for years and may actually worsen as AI deployment grows more pervasive. As AI becomes commonplace in other sectors, such as finance, retail, and healthcare, it will no longer be just big tech companies rummaging for talent.

AI is indeed on its way to becoming commonplace. Deloitte’s 2018 Human Capital Trends found that the technology is already in wider use with one in four companies already using AI and 42% of respondents expecting AI to be widely deployed in three to five years.

Delivering the talent to meet this expanding use will be no easy task, especially considering the years it takes to train that level of expertise. “Of course demand outweighs supply. And things are not getting better any time soon,” Yoshua Bengio, a professor at the University of Montreal and a prominent A.I. researcher, told The New York Times. 

OpenAI website states its mission "is to build safe AGI (artificial general intelligence) and ensure AGI's benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible." The website lists Sutskever as a co-founder of the lab.

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