When Matt Zeiler finished his PhD in machine learning from New York University in 2013, the tech giants came scrambling.

While he was graduating, the young artificial intelligence researcher won the ImageNet competition, which pits teams against each other for who can get the best image recognition. His team beats outs giants like Google. His teammate, the NYU Professor Rob Fergus, was quickly picked up by Facebook, and the tech giants were hungry for Zeiler too. Google, where Zeiler had previously interned, offered him a position, but so did Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. A bidding war started. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even met with him personally, Zeiler said.

Zeiler rebuffed all offers and founded his own startup, Clarifai, but that’s rare in a world where tech giants are willing to pay top dollar for AI talent. Every student coming out of these university programs are finding themselves deluged with offers from tech companies as AI has become increasingly central to the products and services that are consuming our lives. Microsoft Research head Peter Lee compared recruiting AI talent in the field of deep learning to recruiting a top NFL quarterback.

But that was back in 2013. Now the talent war for AI researchers has ramped up even more. New numbers out from Paysa, a recruitment platform, give some indication. Based on a study of public job listings among US employers, the top 20 AI recruiters are spending more than $650 million annually to hire talent in this field. The usual suspects — Amazon, Google and Microsoft — far outweigh recruiting efforts by other players.

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