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6 Reasons Now Is the Best Time to Earn an Artificial Intelligence Master's

A man looks at an artificial intelligence machine through a clear glass divider.

For some time, artificial intelligence adoption was stuck in a "hurry up and wait" holding pattern. There was plenty of buzz around AI, but the technology was not mature enough to be useful on a grand scale. The widespread adoption of artificial intelligence only became possible once two conditions were met. First, organizations had to digitize vast amounts of data, creating the massive datasets that form the foundation of AI. Second, computers with enough processing power to work with massive datasets had to be commonplace, so organizations outside of computer science could explore the applications of intelligent systems.

In 2022, these conditions are a reality, and AI is no longer a niche research field focused on the technology of the future. It’s a tool with applications in fields as diverse as manufacturing, healthcare, gaming, engineering and economics. The discipline is also growing rapidly, year over year. The World Economic Forum estimates employers will create 97 million new jobs in AI by 2025. As artificial intelligence evolves further and data collection becomes even more ubiquitous, AI will not only transform the way organizations set and achieve goals but also take on some of the most pressing challenges humans face.

Because intelligent systems fueled by technologies such as machine learning and computer vision have become so useful so quickly, the demand for AI specialists and engineers is outstripping the available supply of talent. That scarcity adds up to more opportunity, higher pay and increased versatility for anyone with advanced skills and credentials, making now an optimal time to earn an artificial intelligence master’s degree in SMU Lyle School of Engineering's Online Master of Science in Computer Science with Artificial Intelligence Specialization (MSCS-AI). If you’re just scoping out this discipline and aren’t sure whether now is the time to dive in, this guide may convince you that you should apply sooner rather than later.

AI Adoption Is Growing

Where some industries may have been wary of artificial intelligence before, they now understand its outsized potential. The rate of AI adoption is speeding up. When Gartner surveyed organizations in 89 countries, it found a staggering 270 percent jump in artificial intelligence implementation in the last four years. Much of that growth stemmed from the need for digital transformation during the pandemic. In 2020, businesses began investing in AI development and integration like never before. According to data from the financial education hub StockApps, AI startups raised a cumulative $73.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020 – a $15 billion increase from the start of the year, when funding was lagging.

The field is expanding so quickly because of its versatility. AI can make business processes more efficient through rapid data analysis, drive the design and creation of new products, power smarter virtual assistants, respond capably to customer service inquiries and identify and prevent fraud. In a 2021 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 86 percent of respondents reported that AI was becoming a "mainstream technology" at their organizations. Nearly two-thirds of insurance companies surveyed said AI is creating better customer experiences, and about half said artificial intelligence is helping improve decision-making by quickly analyzing data – including hard-to-quantify metrics such as customer sentiment – to forecast need.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are Creating New Jobs

The uncomfortable reality is that some people will lose their jobs to algorithms. McKinsey & Company estimates that 70 million workers in the United States may be replaced by automation by 2030. That's the bad news. On the flip side, most of those jobs are clustered in fewer than five percent of occupations, and experts predict that AI and machine learning technologies will eventually create about 133 million new positions across industries. Opportunity will abound for those willing to reskill to work at the intersection of human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence.

Today's AI systems are smart, but they cannot function without human beings. Only people can train artificial intelligence programs to understand natural language or identify specific objects in images. Human workers have to oversee intelligent systems, which are still in their infancy and prone to unexpected mistakes. Only people can audit AI technologies to ensure they perform predictably, reliably and ethically. And some newly created AI jobs will likely go to people who are domain experts, not technology experts. They'll be go-betweens, helping stakeholders understand the applications of technology and articulating the needs of executives to technologists.

Science fiction has traditionally painted a bleak picture of the impact of AI on people, but most of the emerging benefits of artificial intelligence involve collaboration. Two business researchers who studied 1,500 companies found that performance improves significantly when humans and machines work together. The researchers, H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty, determined that "what comes naturally to people (making a joke, for example) can be tricky for machines, and what's straightforward for machines (analyzing gigabytes of data) remains virtually impossible for humans. Business requires both kinds of capabilities."

Demand for Artificial Intelligence Skills Is Still High

According to market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes millions of job postings in real-time, employers posted hundreds of thousands of jobs requiring artificial intelligence and machine learning skills in the past 12 months. Right now, there are more than 62,000 open listings on LinkedIn specifically targeting full-time job seekers with artificial intelligence skills – many of which prioritize applicants with master’s degrees in this discipline.

More than 90 percent of employers that encounter barriers to AI realization cite lack of access to talent as a significant challenge. This roadblock is not industry-specific – there's a shortage of AI specialists in every industry, from computer science to healthcare to cyber security. While 80 percent of large organizations want to hire talent with machine learning and deep learning skills right now, only 12 percent report being able to find an adequate supply of applicants with those skills. Many have Python skills and some have bachelor’s degrees in technological disciplines, but very few have the specific specialized and up-to-date skills covered in the core courses and electives that make up SMU's MSCS-AI curriculum. Students exit the part-time AI graduate program equipped to handle tasks related to data mining, natural language processing and algorithm engineering. Demand for these and related AI skills is so high that 82 percent of Lyle School of Engineering graduates find jobs before completing the MSCS-AI program.

An Artificial Intelligence Master’s Degree Can Lead to Jobs in Most Fields

Some applications of AI are surprising. For example, AI algorithms can identify and create visually exciting and time-period-specific art pieces, design better games and help humans compose symphonies. Artificial intelligence can also help preserve human-crafted art and artifacts. As part of a five-year, $125 million commitment to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges with AI, Microsoft is partnering with nonprofits, universities and governments to preserve pieces of cultural import. The program builds on efforts by organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is using AI to make its collection available to everyone online.

The list of the applications of artificial intelligence in different industries is long. The healthcare industry uses AI to make faster diagnoses, banks use it to improve the customer experience and cyber security firms use it to detect threats more quickly. Companies of all sizes and in all sectors want to hire machine learning engineers who can train and optimize neural networks and NLP experts to leverage the power of data. Humanity has only scratched the surface of what artificial intelligence can do. The benefit of entering a degree program right now is that you will be prepared to work on cutting-edge technologies that could revolutionize the human experience.

AI Researchers and Engineers Will Change the World for the Better

To understand artificial intelligence's potential to benefit humanity, think big. Now think bigger. The Partnership on AI, a nonprofit research conglomerate that includes Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft, as well as academic and industrial organizations, asserts that "artificial intelligence technologies hold great promise for raising the quality of people’s lives and can be leveraged to help humanity address important global challenges such as climate change, food, inequality, health and education."

AI and machine learning can support social change across sectors in simple ways that promise substantial impact. Hiring managers can use AI to sort through applicant pools, leading to a reduction in discrimination in recruiting. AI can make sustainability efforts more efficient. The waste management industry uses AI-powered reverse logistics infrastructure to streamline recycling. Intelligent grids can monitor energy demand and usage in real-time so that utilities can respond to urgent or changing electricity needs.

Perhaps the most exciting applications of AI are in medicine, where intelligent technologies developed by software engineers and data scientists increasingly power drug research, COVID pandemic response initiatives and cancer diagnoses. Data science and medical experts say AI can give practitioners much-needed support, enabling them to spend more time with patients.

Starting an Artificial Intelligence Master’s Degree Program Now Puts You Ahead

Competing in this evolving discipline can involve both reskilling and re-credentialing. More than 42 percent of people working in artificial intelligence have master's degrees, and that number will probably go up in the near future. If you want to transition into an AI-focused role in your current field or launch a new career in technology, chances are you will need a graduate degree on your resume – particularly if your goal is to work for one of the big tech firms. Amazon, NVIDIA and Microsoft hire the majority of artificial intelligence degree holders, along with companies like IBM, Accenture and Facebook. The benefit of pursuing a master's in artificial intelligence such as SMU's online MSCS-AI is that the skills you learn and the credential you gain will set you up to take advantage of the ongoing evolution of artificial intelligence. You can enter the field in less than two years with transferable technical abilities and the perspective necessary to implement AI ethically in various systems.

However, perhaps you're still questioning whether earning a master's in artificial intelligence is necessary – or worth it – given that AI-driven technologies are becoming commonplace. You may be wondering if you'll be late to the party if you apply for an MSCS-AI now. Keep in mind there are still many unexplored avenues in this evolving field. As the discipline grows, so will you. Early-career artificial intelligence specialists earn salaries much higher than the national average – about $115,000 – and AI and machine learning professionals established in their careers can earn substantially more in base pay, bonuses and options. The highest earners in the field often earn more than $350,000. That makes the ROI of a world-class AI-focused computer science master's degree quite high – and it may be higher if you start now and develop your career in AI while the discipline is still young.