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The non-tech companies snapping up PhDs from America’s elite AI programs

An Argo Ai self driving prototype vehicle is seen outside a Ford and Volkswagen joint news conference in New York City.
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Ford is just one of the surprising companies leading the US in hires of its elite AI graduates.
  • Nicolás Rivero
By Nicolás Rivero

Tech Reporter based in New York

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Big tech isn’t the only sector hiring top artificial intelligence talent from the US’s most prestigious PhD programs. Competing alongside digital giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are carmakers, big box retailers, and magazine publishers, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

To be sure, a majority of the 1,126 workers we looked at wound up in software and internet-focused industries, which include unsurprising names like Apple, Alphabet, and IBM. They represent 62.5% of the students who graduated from the top 20 American AI PhD programs since 2014 and then went to work at a publicly traded company.

Alphabet holds a dominant lead in AI hiring; its AI-specific business, DeepMind, accounted for only 24 of its 290 hires, with 220 hired by Google and the rest by Alphabet’s other subsidiaries. And even among e-commerce giants, Amazon holds a crushing lead over its rivals in acquiring top AI talent. It hired more than 12 times as many of the top US PhDs as its closest competitor, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

But sizable cohorts of top AI graduates have been recruited into other industries.


The largest group outside of software, internet, and consumer electronics companies, totaling 71 graduates, went into the semiconductor industry, where Intel had a clear advantage in AI hiring.

Mergers and acquisitions in the industry have ground nearly to a halt over the past year amid an increasingly acrimonious technological rivalry between the US and China. Semiconductor companies that want to acquire talent now have few options other than to hire directly.


And a group of 40 PhDs went into the auto industry, where Ford and Toyota led electric car rival Tesla in AI hires. Aside from its in-house hires, Ford has also invested $1 billion in self-driving car startup Argo AI. Toyota has poured $200 million into a venture capital arm dubbed Toyota AI Ventures.

A small but significant cluster—16 graduates—went to work for public drug manufacturing companies. Drugmakers see opportunities for AI to accelerate drug discovery, and dozens of pharmaceutical companies have built out AI teams to explore the possibility.

The list also includes 11 graduates who went to brick-and mortar-retailers Walmart and Target, nine who went to defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, and five who went to office supplier 3M, a conglomerate perhaps best known for making Post-it notes (and, more visibly during the pandemic, masks and respirators).