How to Get Into Artificial Intelligence

How to Get Into Artificial Intelligence was originally published on Forage.

AI professional with code projected over her face

Artificial intelligence can be an elusive but exciting technological field. If you’re interested in working on creative, new technology that can impact how people solve everyday problems, the AI field might be right for you. This guide will teach you how to get into artificial intelligence. We’ll cover:

What Do Artificial Intelligence Professionals Do?

Artificial intelligence professionals work in the field of computer science and focus on building machines that are capable of “learning.” These machines process and synthesize information to problem-solve and learn from each input.

Multiple different industries use artificial intelligence. For example, a health care company might use artificial intelligence to build a chatbot that helps answer a prospective patient’s questions about insurance. Artificial intelligence can also come in handy in the travel industry, offering navigation services that give real-time updates on traffic and change the route to get people to their destination the fastest. Media companies even use AI when streaming services give you new recommendations based on what you’ve watched before.

>>MORE: What Is Artificial Intelligence?

A Typical Day in Artificial Intelligence

Because there are so many applications for artificial intelligence and various positions within the field, every day in the industry looks different.

“For me, a typical day involves a mixture of hands-on technical work, strategy planning, review and testing of new features and models, and experimental work with exciting new use cases,” says Arun Godwin Patel, director of Halo Technology Lab, CTO and co-founder of Audico and Forage program consultant. “My role has a mixture of deep technical work and high level strategy and planning, which is a nice balance to have.”

Some other everyday tasks professionals in artificial intelligence might do include:

  • Researching and developing algorithms
  • Testing different models
  • Writing code
  • Debugging code
  • Developing AI strategy
  • Testing machine learning models
  • Staying up to date on current AI technologies and developments
  • Collaborating with fellow team members, like data scientists, software engineers, and product managers

SPLY85, a DJ who creates music using AI, explains a potential day in the life of an AI professional:

Standups

“Many AI professionals start their day with team meetings or standups, where they discuss progress on current projects, plan upcoming work, and address any issues or concerns,” he says.

Coding and Development

Much of an AI professional’s day, especially if you’re in a highly technical role, is spent “writing and testing code, developing new models and algorithms, and analyzing data to inform decision making,” SPLY85 explains. Depending on the current project’s size, coding can be individual or collaborative.

Experimentation and Research

Artificial intelligence is about building technology that hasn’t existed before — which means that professionals need to constantly innovate, experiment, and iterate to test new theories and ideas.

Collaboration

AI professionals don’t usually work in silos but in a highly collaborative environment. Artificial intelligence teams can include software engineers, data scientists, product managers, and more. “This means that a significant portion of an AI professional’s day may be spent in meetings or communicating with colleagues to ensure everyone is aligned and working towards the same goals,” SPLY85 says.

Professional Development

As AI professionals often experiment to produce new technologies, they also need to stay up to date with what other new technologies professionals develop. This might include reading industry news, learning new skills, or even attending conferences.

Careers in AI

Artificial intelligence is an exciting field because career opportunities exist in multiple areas of the development process. For example, certain roles are available if you’re more interested in data and others if you’re interested in software development. There are even research and non-technical roles like marketing and project management.

Some standard job titles in the field include:

  • Data analyst: Uses data to understand industry trends and drive business decisions
  • Data scientist: Uses data to make predictive models
  • AI research assistant: Figures out new ways to leverage data to create new AI models
  • Machine learning engineer: Builds and tests machine learning models
  • Software engineer: Writes and tests code for an AI-backed software

>>MORE: Data Analyst vs. Data Scientist: What’s the Difference?

Artificial Intelligence Career Path

“Some entry-level starting points for people interested in AI include internships, entry-level data science or machine learning positions, or participation in open-source AI projects,” says SPLY85. “These experiences can provide valuable hands-on experience and help individuals build a portfolio of work that demonstrates their skills to potential employers.”

Once you’ve got your start in artificial intelligence, advancing your career can go one of a few ways:

  • Leadership: In most career paths, advancing in the field can mean you take on a leadership role. As a manager, you might manage a team and take responsibility for more strategy versus execution.
  • Research: AI is an innovative field. If you’re interested in working on the latest developments and innovations, you can pursue research-heavy roles focusing on researching what’s next for the industry.
  • Specialization: “As AI continues to evolve, there is a growing need for specialists in specific areas of the field, such as natural language processing, computer vision, or deep learning,” SPLY85 says. “Professionals who develop expertise in these areas may have opportunities to work on highly specialized projects or lead teams focused on specific AI applications.” This is a great option for those who want to move up the career ladder but are less interested in management.

“Advancement opportunities in AI are diverse and plentiful!” says Aayush Arora, CEO of FilterPixel, an AI that automates the photo-selection process for photographers. “With experience and expertise, professionals can advance to higher-level roles like senior data scientist, AI architect, or AI director. Many people also pursue advanced degrees or certifications to specialize in a specific area of AI, like natural language processing, computer vision, or robotics. There are also opportunities to work on cutting-edge research and develop new applications for AI technology.”

How Much Do Artificial Intelligence Professionals Make? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for computer and information research scientists, which includes artificial intelligence professionals, is $131,490. The job outlook for these professionals is strong, too, with employment expected to grow 21% from 2021 to 2031.

Your salary can vary greatly depending on what area of AI you go into. For example, software engineers make an average of around $106,700, while data analysts make an average of around $70,400, according to Glassdoor.

How to Become an AI Professional

Now that you know what career opportunities in the field are like, here’s how to get into artificial intelligence.

Education

There aren’t many artificial intelligence degree programs, so most professionals have degrees in related fields like computer science, math, electrical engineering, data science, and statistics.

“Study what you’re passionate about and approach getting into AI as a way to automate and enhance parts of what you’re doing,” says Emma Brown, the COO and co-founder of DeepMedia, an AI platform company.

Brown started with a linguistics background. Even though she didn’t study AI, she was interested in applying her experience to the field. She now works on an AI application to translate, dub, and lipsync videos in 50 languages.

“Not enough trained linguists that speak Ukrainian? Follow your passion and find a way to make it accessible to everyone.”

Do You Need a Degree to Be an AI Professional?

How much does a degree matter in this industry?

>>MORE: New Collar Jobs: Why Companies Are Prioritizing Skills Over School

Dr. Neal Parikh, adjunct associate professor at Columbia and former director of AI of New York City, says that a lack of a degree might not eliminate you from the candidate pool, but that doesn’t mean a bootcamp or other online course is enough to land you a role.

“You can tell the difference between someone who has a real computer science degree versus someone who’s gone to a bootcamp,” Parikh says. “I think there is a value in the marketplace for people who can combine things together that are existing components. It’s a very fast-moving area; it’s not so common that you find someone coming out of those programs that understands the fundamental concepts of how these systems work.”

Instead, Parikh says what matters more is showing that you understand the fundamentals of artificial intelligence. Working in a field that can have such a significant impact on society — especially ethical consequences — means that it’s not just about having the right technical skills but learning them in the context of the artificial intelligence field.

“I don’t think you need to have a math degree, but you need to do the work — that’s the key,” he says. “These online courses and bootcamps often don’t make those people do the work. I do have some concerns about the degree to which people are pushing the skills out to a large number of people quickly without really thinking through what they need to understand in order to deploy them responsibly. You do not need a degree, but simply going to a bootcamp doesn’t impress me. You need to have a portfolio and show you’ve done the work.”

Skills

So, what skills do you need to start your career in artificial intelligence? Of course, specific skills can vary based on what type of role you pursue — machine learning vs. data, for example — but there are some common themes across the industry.

Hard Skills

First, you’ll need strong programming skills for responsibilities like coding new software or working with algorithms and data sets. Knowing what to tell the AI to do — known as prompt engineering — is also incredibly important.

“The quality of AI output depends on the quality of input,” says Vlad Hu, an SaaS consultant and Fiverr freelancer who leverages AI to create software products. “There is a term in software development that’s called ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ which means that the poor instructions to a program will lead to poor results it gives. AI is also a program, and people who master AI prompts are already extremely valuable on the market.”

You’ll also need a strong understanding of mathematics and statistics.

“If you’re looking to break into a technical role within AI, there is a base level of skills that are expected since AI has foundations in a variety of fields such as computer science, mathematics and statistics. Hence, coming from one of these backgrounds definitely helps,” says Godwin Patel. “However, if you’re not from a technical background, having real life experience and a willingness to upskill in programming, mathematics and engineering will help you to stand out.”

Soft Skills

As for soft skills, artificial intelligence professionals must be innovative, good abstract thinkers, and exceptional problem-solvers.

>>MORE: Learn how to build your problem-solving skills.

“You also can’t just google the solutions to roadblocks you run into,” Brown says. “Since this field is on the cutting edge, lots of the problems you face don’t have a pre-set solution so you have to be on your toes and come up with solutions. On the flipside, you get to think outside the box every day, and you get to interact with really smart and interesting people who are also excited about AI.”

Further, you need to stay on the pulse of the industry. Professionals might focus on industry news to stay updated, but Parikh warns against relying on secondary sources like traditional news sites.

“You need to not believe everything you read,” Parikh says. “Do your own work and read the primary sources and talk to the people who actually build things and work on things. Don’t focus on commentary from secondary sources or in the media. Actually go do the work of being able to read original papers and read original software. See what they’re actually capable of doing and not doing, and what the people actually in the field are talking about or not talking about. Then, make your own conclusions.”

Applying to Be an AI Professional 

There are a couple of ways to stand out when applying for AI roles. The first is demonstrating your skills — whether that’s through an open-source project, internship experience, or an online portfolio.

>>MORE: How to Create an Online Portfolio (Even When You Don’t Have Work Experience)

“You also have to offer a unique skill set to a company,” Brown says. “My background in linguistics helps inform how we build our [product]. Similar unique skill sets can inform other teams. Apps are a great place to get your feet wet and prove your skills. A solid machine learning portfolio will also get you a long way if you’re technically inclined.”

Beyond your skill set, your passion for this unique industry can go a long way when landing a role in the field.

“In order to advance in this industry, you have to show interest,” Brown notes. “The types of people that really succeed in this industry are people that are excited to do this work. You can’t fake it ’til you make it here!”

Ready to start building your artificial intelligence skills? Experience a day in the life working in AI with Cognizant’s Artificial Intelligence Virtual Experience Program.

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