Opinion

Immigration and the Future of U.S. AI

By Zachary Arnold , Tina Huang & Remco Zwetsloot
November 26, 2019 at 5:00 am ET

Forbes recently released its AI 50, a list of America’s “most promising” private companies working in artificial intelligence. It’s an impressive lineup, with startups working on AI-based solutions to problems in a wide range of fields, from cybersecurity and fraud detection to weather forecasting and drug discovery.

What do these companies share? Many of their common features are unsurprising: a clear value proposition, solid funding and a robust customer base, for starters. But as we reviewed the list, another, less obvious trend became clear.

From our research at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, we know that immigrant entrepreneurs play an important role in America’s technology industry, including the AI sector. For example, Google, Tesla and AI chipmaker Nvidia were founded by immigrants to the United States, and half of all Silicon Valley startups have at least one foreign-born founder. Overall, immigrants are twice as likely as native-born citizens to become entrepreneurs.

But do these general trends hold true for the leading startups of the AI 50 as well? The answer is a resounding yes: America’s “most promising” private AI companies were disproportionately founded by immigrants. To confirm this, we combed LinkedIn profiles, corporate biographies and other public sources for information on the 130 founders listed in Forbes’ article. If we couldn’t specifically document where they were born, we followed other researchers’ practice in assuming they were born abroad if they attended college or (when available) high school outside the United States. (This method probably undercounts immigrants, since many foreign-born students attend college in the United States.)

The results? At least 34 of the AI 50 companies (68%) have one or more immigrant founders, and at least 55 of the 125 founders across all companies (44%) were born outside the United States. If anything, immigrant founders are probably even more prevalent among the AI 50 than among tech startups overall. In choosing to launch businesses in the United States, they are creating new AI solutions, jobs and industries benefiting all types of Americans.

While the AI 50’s immigrant founders successfully navigated the U.S. immigration system, many foreign-born AI entrepreneurs are not so lucky. Unlike other countries, the United States has no “start-up visa.” Foreign-born entrepreneurs must contend with a variety of limited, complicated and costly immigration options, and for many, there is no viable option at all. The International Entrepreneur Rule, enacted in 2017, tried to fill this gap by providing temporary status to promising foreign-born founders, but the current administration has rolled it back. Meanwhile, numerical caps on temporary work visas and green cards are stuck at 1990 levels, preventing many from taking their place in line.

America’s AI immigration problem extends well beyond entrepreneurs. Foreign-born talent fuels the U.S. AI sector at every level, from academia – according to our analyses, some two-thirds of U.S. graduate students in AI-related fields were born abroad – to the Silicon Valley workforce, where 65 percent of math and computer science professionals are foreign-born. Rather than displacing domestic workers, our research suggests these immigrants and visitors fill a critical talent gap in America’s AI sector, helping create opportunities for native-born and foreign-born alike.

As other countries increase their efforts to compete for tech talent, the United States must reform outdated, counterproductive immigration laws and avoid restrictive new policies that will place the United States at an economic and national security disadvantage. The AI 50 shows that foreign talent is critical to AI innovation – and that for now, the United States can still attract talent from around the world. But for every promising foreign-born entrepreneur behind an AI 50 company, this country is likely turning many others away. This must change. Congress should build new immigration pathways for AI students, workers and entrepreneurs, and override regulatory and administrative policies that make it harder to recruit and retain talent. With these reforms, one can easily imagine an AI 500 in America’s future.

Zachary Arnold and Remco Zwetsloot are research fellows, and Tina Huang is a research analyst, with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University

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