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Elon Musk-founded OpenAI paid its top researcher $1.9 million

[Credit: OpenAI]

Tax filings by the Elon Musk-founded research lab OpenAI revealed that its best researchers are paid top dollar for their expertise. In 2016 alone, OpenAI paid Ilya Sutskever, its top researcher, an impressive salary of $1.9 million.

In a statement to the New York Times, Sutskever noted that other AI companies actually offered him more substantial salaries. The top researcher noted, however, that OpenAI has a certain appeal, in the way that it shares its work openly with the outside world in an effort to push for a safe AI revolution.

“I turned down offers for multiple times the dollar amount I accepted at OpenAI. Others did the same. (I expect) salaries at OpenAI to increase as the organization pursues its mission of ensuring powerful A.I. benefits all of humanity,” Ilya said.

OpenAI published its launch blog post in December 2015, with the nonprofit being co-founded by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Y Combinator President Sam Altman. In its first year of operations, the nonprofit spent about $11 million, with $7 million going into the salaries and employee benefits of its researchers and staff. The company employed 52 people then.

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Sutskever’s $1.9 million compensation might be eye-catching, but pay for OpenAI’s other lead researchers in 2016 was nothing to scoff at either. Ian Goodfellow, whom OpenAI hired in March 2016, was paid more than $800,000 for his work during the year. Famed roboticist and University of California, Berkeley professor Pieter Abbeel was hired in June 2016 and was paid $425,000. These amounts, including Sutskever’s nearly $2 million pay, included signing bonuses.

Remarkably, OpenAI’s top researchers might actually be underselling their income potential. Being a nonprofit, the Elon Musk-founded company cannot offer stock options to its employees — something that bigger AI companies include in their compensation plan.

Over the past couple of years, salaries for top AI researchers have seen a meteoric rise due to the industry’s ever-growing demand. Chris Nicholson, CEO and founder of Skymind, an AI company, stated that there are simply far too few individuals with skills in artificial intelligence available. While he sees the number of AI researchers growing, he does not think demand will be met anytime soon.

“There is a mountain of demand and a trickle of supply. If anything, demand for that talent is growing faster than the supply of new researchers, because AI is moving from early adopters to wider use,” he said.  

Some of OpenAI’s best-paid talent in 2016 have since moved on to different ventures. Goodfellow ultimately went back to Google, while Abbeel left the nonprofit with two other researchers to form their own robotics startup called Embodied Intelligence. Another OpenAI alumnus, Andrej Karpathy, left the company to head the AI division of Tesla.

Earlier this year, OpenAI announced that Elon Musk would be stepping down from its board of directors to avoid any conflict of interest with his work at Tesla. Back in January, however, a rare announcement from OpenAI’s official Twitter account suggested that the nonprofit is looking to hire more employees.

Elon Musk-founded OpenAI paid its top researcher $1.9 million
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