The Biden administration’s newly established National Artificial Intelligence Initiative office prioritizes working with U.S. allies and partners as part of its agenda, reflecting a broader understanding that allies are essential to U.S. ambitions in artificial intelligence (AI). India is a key strategic partner for the United States, rooted in democratic values, committed to responsible development and use of emerging technologies, and a nation with considerable potential in AI. Indeed, the United States and India already cooperate on AI research and development through platforms like the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) that recently launched a U.S.-India Artificial Intelligence (USIAI) Partnership.
That said, India’s tech talent diaspora is perhaps one of the most critical and currently underrecognized resources for a mutually beneficial partnership on AI between the two countries. Indian talent moving to the United States is uniquely a win-win for both countries and can play a crucial role in advancing both India’s and the United States’ AI ambitions.
India has a massive pool of tech talent. A recent report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) evaluating India’s AI capabilities emphasized that the country produces almost seven times as many bachelor’s level engineering graduates as the United States, and almost twice as many master’s level engineering graduates. But poor job growth, substandard infrastructural facilities, and the bad shape of its higher education sector means India currently lacks the right environment to nurture this talent at the doctoral level and offer subsequent employment opportunities.
Indian students therefore often choose to pursue advanced degrees in other countries, especially in the United States, which remains their most favored destination. In fact, 14 percent of all the international students in the United States are from India, second only to China. As the CSET report highlights, when analyzing STEM fields like mathematics, computer science, and engineering, the number of international Indian students far outpaces their Chinese counterparts in six out of the past 10 years.
For the United States, the influx of Indian tech talent is a big plus. As the NSCAI’s final report makes clear, “nations that can successfully attract and retain highly skilled individuals gain strategic and economic advantages over competitors.” But for a nation losing its best and brightest, there are often concerns about a brain drain. China and South Korea, for example, have implemented measures such as the Thousand Talents Plan and the Brain Return 500 Project to support return migration of their most educated and skilled citizens.
But the Indian government does not appear to consider itself as suffering from a similar brain drain problem. India’s huge population produces more graduates than its economy can absorb. Moreover, the government sees greater benefits from skilled migration through remittances, investments, and knowledge-sharing. This is partly why India has done little or nothing to reverse skilled migration flows.
Fixing the problems that incentivize India’s domestic tech talent to leave the country is a long-term challenge. Building the required academic and technological infrastructures for this challenge warrants the type of resources and commitment the government cannot currently afford, let alone the infeasibility and financial costs of trying to retain highly skilled AI workers in a domestic market where supply far outpaces demand. But India-U.S. relations, as well as India domestically, can benefit today from facilitating educational exchanges, including by encouraging the establishment of U.S. university campuses in India.
Indian talent already plays a significant role in the U.S. and Indian tech sectors. First-generation immigrants from India comprised 11 percent of the founders of the top 50 AI startups in the United States – the largest share among all immigrant founders. Tech companies founded by these immigrants not only employ tens of thousands of Americans and contribute to the U.S. economy, but they also contribute to the Indian market via outsourcing, tech transfers, or investment opportunities, and further bolster the India-U.S. tech relationship.
Policymakers in the United States and India can advance their AI ambitions by further strengthening ties with the Indian tech talent diaspora and facilitating their ventures in both countries. This would require them to redress existing hurdles: India should improve the regulatory apparatus and issues pertaining to the enforcement of contracts for overseas Indians looking to work in India as well as finding diplomatic solutions to differing viewpoints on data privacy and storage rules. The United States should reform its immigration system, which has impacted Indian immigrants most adversely given the long waits for employment-based green cards even for high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Such reform could involve, for instance, increasing the number of employment-based green cards, and creating an entrepreneurship or emerging technologies visa.
Another way in which India’s tech talent diaspora can help bolster AI progress in India and the U.S. is through collaborative research. While India is the fourth largest producer of AI-relevant scholarly papers in the world, this research is not highly impactful in part because Indian scientists do not collaborate internationally. AI researchers in the United States collaborate nearly three times more with their Chinese counterparts than any other country in the world, which is worrisome for the U.S. government given the growing research security concerns and strategic competition with China. Promoting research collaborations between Indian scientists and India’s tech talent diaspora in the United States can benefit both India and the United States by helping diversify perspectives and building relationships via established linkages. Joint platforms like the USIAI can provide the space for researchers to meet. However, any sustainable success on this front requires policy interventions to overcome existing barriers to international collaboration on both sides, such as a lack of funding, visa issues, national biases, and controls prohibiting data, lab, and material sharing.
While countries across the globe are racing to become AI leaders and competing to control the best expertise, India and the United States face a unique situation. Talent flows are mutually beneficial and more an avenue of cooperation than competition. A growing Indian tech diaspora in the United States can be a key element of the India-U.S. AI partnership that will enable the two countries to further strengthen one another and together implement emerging technologies in accordance with democratic values and principles.