Facebook hires CMU professors: fair or poaching?

Two Carnegie Mellon professors from the School of Computer Science have been hired by Facebook to head the company’s new Pittsburgh artificial intelligence lab.

Is this the start of a promising research collaboration? Or just another case of the academic poaching plaguing top universities around the country?

The planned Facebook AI Research (FAIR) lab will be led by Jessica Hodgins, currently a professor of robotics and computer science. Hodgins, a leader in her field whose research focuses on human motion in computer graphics and robotics, is the current president of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH). Joining the lab will be associate professor Abhinav Gupta, who specializes in large-scale visual and robot learning.

The move was announced in July by Yann LeCun, the company’s director of AI research.

Carnegie Mellon, a leader in AI research, is a natural place for Facebook to look for talent. The university is ranked #1 in the country in AI research, and in the fall, it will be the nation’s first to offer an undergraduate degree in AI. (Facebook will also be upgrading its FAIR lab in Seattle, to be headed by a professor from the University of Washington.) Facebook’s choice to expand its presence in Pittsburgh is a logical one.

The ethics of the move, however, are less straightforward. By siphoning talent from top research universities, Facebook is ‘poaching,’ an increasingly unpopular move. Many believe the shift of research jobs from universities to corporations has highly privatized research, locking valuable scientific work behind non-disclosure agreements. When researchers leave academia for lucrative industry jobs, universities lose out on not only talent and intellectual property, but also grants, and the mentorship of young researchers.

When a job offer is made, it can be impossible for universities to retain their faculty; even the most idealistic have families to feed. Academic jobs are scarce, and academic jobs that pay are scarcer.

Poaching is by no means a new issue on campus. Carnegie Mellon made national headlines in 2015 when the university’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) lost almost fifty people – a third of its staff – to Uber’s new Advanced Technologies Center (ATC). “They took all the guys that were working on vehicle autonomy – basically whole groups, whole teams of developers, commercialization specialists, all the guys that find grants and who were bringing the intellectual property,” a source reported, as quoted in a contemporaneous article by The Verge. “These guys, they took everybody.” Uber, then valued at between $60 billion and $70 billion, built the ATC to develop autonomous vehicles. The sheer scale of the controversial move brought national awareness to the issue of academic poaching.

Facebook, sensitive to how these issues might affect its image, maintains that they are not aiming to repeat the Uber exodus. “Facebook is careful not to deplete universities from their best faculty, by making it easy to maintain sizeable research and teaching activities in their academic labs,” LeCun, also a professor of computer science at New York University, wrote in the announcement. “Unlike others, we work with universities to find suitable arrangements and do not hire away large numbers of faculty into full-time positions bottled up behind a wall of non-disclosure agreements. We contribute to the local ecosystem.” He emphasized that “making these part-time splits possible is precisely the reason why we have been establishing labs in New York, Paris, Montréal, Tel Aviv, and now Seattle and Pittsburgh.” After a New York Times article suggested Facebook was guilty of poaching, Lecun responded that it “erroneously qualified this evolution as a ‘brain drain’ from academia.”

The consensus in the academic community? That’s exactly what’s happening. “It is worrisome that they are eating the seed corn,” said Dan Weld, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, in the New York Times story. “If we lose all our faculty, it will be hard to keep preparing the next generation of researchers.” University researchers hired part-time by Facebook often spend four-fifths of their time working at the company.

Despite its alleged goal, poaching often strains the relationships between academia and industry. Uber’s cherry-picking in 2015 stirred resentment in the university researchers left behind at the NREC.

Carnegie Mellon, in official statements, has maintained an optimistic outlook for the FAIR partnership. “We welcome Facebook’s FAIR lab to Pittsburgh, which will provide our faculty and students with new opportunities to engage in groundbreaking research. From experience with our many partners in the city, we know that corporate activity close to campus is of mutual benefit to the university and our partners,” said Mark Nolan, Carnegie Mellon’s associate vice president of institutional partnerships, as quoted in a July press release.

The press release also quoted Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science, saying “Facebook’s new lab will create new opportunities to make advances in AI, both at the company and at CMU. Even better, both Jessica and Abhinav will continue their work at CMU, helping us educate the next generation of AI scientists.”

As a high-profile researcher, Moore has been discussing poaching publicly for several years – expressing frustration at the difficulty of retaining faculty, while remaining diplomatic and stressing the complexity of the issue. “It’s kind of crazy that these top folks on the faculty, most of their peers who go into industry are wealthy and don’t need to worry about money anymore, whereas [professors are often left] worrying about sending their kids to college. It’s very tempting to go, which is why I and the department heads here have actually begun encouraging them to do a startup for a few years, or else work for big companies, and come back,” he explained in a 2016 interview with TechCrunch. Moore himself rejoined Carnegie Mellon’s faculty in 2014 after 8 years at Google.

Overall, Moore encourages acceptance of the movement of researchers from academia to industry, and back, as the new reality of research. “At a place like CMU’s School of Computer Science, I expect to see more and more ebb and flow of the planet’s top roboticists, theorists and algorithmists. I don’t see the ‘ebb’ part of this as defeat. It just means we’re living in a free market for brilliant people,” he said in 2016.

According to the university press release, the FAIR lab “will focus on robotics, lifelong learning systems that learn continuously, teaching machines to reason, and AI in support of creativity.” It’s currently unclear what Facebook plans to do in the field of robotics.