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Amazon and other Seattle-area tech companies are developing an AI hub — but worry U.S. immigration policy will hinder their efforts. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A trade group representing some of the world’s largest technology companies is urging governments to rethink their immigration policies or risk falling behind in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The issue is front-of-mind in the Seattle region where companies like Microsoft, Amazon, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), and others are working to develop a global AI hub.

The Partnership on AI published a new paper asking policymakers to create a framework for AI experts, students, and technologists to travel more freely between countries. The nonprofit represents the companies above and nearly 100 other tech firms and research institutions. Though the paper was directed at lawmakers generally, President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda is an undercurrent throughout.

The nonprofit recommends officials create a dedicated visa category for artificial intelligence and machine learning experts so that they can work together across countries. Its members also want the legal immigration and visa application process to be simplified and they’re asking policymakers to rethink quotas based on nationality.

“Diverse perspectives are necessary to ensure that AI is developed in a responsible manner, thoughtfully benefiting all people in society,” the paper says. “Voices and contributions from global talent are also essential to reducing the unintended consequences that can arise from AI/ML development and deployment, including those related to safety and security.”

American tech companies rely on employment-based visas like the H-1B to hire international talent. Microsoft and Amazon file more H-1B applications on behalf of potential employees than any other U.S. tech companies. In 2017 and 2018, Amazon filed the most applications, followed by Microsoft, Intel, and Google in that order. That’s according to data compiled by the National Foundation for American Policy.

But the Partnership on AI members say they’re most concerned about smaller startups that don’t have the resources of a Microsoft or Amazon to navigate the constantly shifting immigration landscape.

“While multinational companies and well-funded universities are able to hire visa experts, resource constrained startups, students, and less affluent applicants lack the finances to successfully obtain visas,” says the Partnership on AI.

AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni. (GeekWire Photo)

Member organizations prompted the Partnership on AI to publish the paper because “certain visa laws, policies, and practices negatively affect their organizations’ abilities to incorporate global representatives and perspectives in their work.” The paper refers to a piece written by Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Seattle-based AI2. In the article, titled “What Trump’s Executive Order on AI Is Missing,” Etzioni details the shortcomings of the current administration’s approach to AI:

President Trump signed an executive order on February 11 meant to shore up our competitive position in the international race for AI supremacy, but it is short on concrete steps. As the CEO of an artificial intelligence research institute, I am calling on him to include a special visa program for AI students and experts to help us win this race for the sake of both economic vitality and national security.

Trump issued his executive order on AI earlier this year to “sustain and enhance the scientific, technological, and economic leadership position of the United States in AI R&D and deployment through a coordinated Federal Government strategy.”

The American AI initiative outlines five principles in service of that goal, from establishing testing standards to worker training. It says the U.S. “must promote an international environment that supports American AI research and innovation and opens markets for American AI industries.” But the order does not include any changes to immigration policy.

However, the Trump administration has proposed increasing the number of employment-based visas by reducing the number of family- and humanitarian-based spots.

Axios first reported on the Partnership for AI policy paper.

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