Tech’s Big Five Are Still the Future

Technology has been on a tear, with the Nasdaq posting 28 record closes so far this year and vastly outperforming the other major indexes. The tech-heavy Nasdaq has gained better than 13% in 2017, while both the Dow Industrials and the S&P 500 are both up just over 5%.

Much of the Nasdaq’s gains have been concentrated in five stocks: Alphabet (NSDQ: GOOGL), Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), Facebook (NSDQ: FB) and Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). Better than expected earnings have been a major driver of the move higher, even among “old school” stalwarts. But another factor is the boom in artificial intelligence (AI), definitely the product of “new school” thinking.

According to a recent report released by Paysa, which tracks salaries across a variety of industries, those companies are making massive outlays on hiring people who specialize in AI. Amazon is far and away the leader in that area, shelling out more than $227 million as it works to occupy the vanguard of AI. That’s not too shocking, considering CEO Jeff Bezos is on record saying that AI has the potential to “empower and improve” every business. In retail, one exciting (and perhaps Orwellian) application of AI is to predict consumer behavior.

Alphabet comes in a distance second in AI spending, at just $130 million, while Microsoft and Facebook are paying out about $75 million and $38 million, respectively. In all, Paysa estimates that companies are currently investing about $640 million in annual salaries to attract the top AI talent available.

That kind of spending is a good indication that technology companies see the race to develop AI as a key to their future success. That’s not really too surprising. AI and machine learning are critical components to making self-driving cars safer and more reliable, as well as synthesizing traffic patterns, road conditions and other data into predictive models. With AI, smart cars can better chart the fastest, safest and most efficient route.

In Bezos’s case, he’s been touting drone delivery as the future of online retail. By cutting out delivery services like United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS) or the U.S. Postal Service, Amazon would save a ton of money even as consumers get their products faster. For that to become a reality, drones must get a lot smarter and not be dependent on remote human pilots.

Aside from the sheer sums of money being spent on AI talent, one of the most surprising findings in the report was who is doing the spending.

Many investors tend to think the real money to be made in technology is often in the start-ups that most people have never heard of. That can certainly be true — just ask early investors in Microsoft and Apple — but those start-ups often lack the financial heft to attract the people who can move a field forward. In fact, Paysa found that 36% of positions in the AI field were at companies that have been around for 20 years or more, with just 6% at start-ups less than five years old.

The takeaway: Investing in technology’s giants is likely to continue paying off.


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