The 2018 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) is in full swing in Montréal. According to a booklet distributed to attendees, both NeurIPS 2019 and 2020 will take place in Vancouver, making Canada the host country three years in a row. NeurIPS has already been held in Montreal and Vancouver a combined 13 times since the world’s leading AI conference left its Denver base in 2001.
One reason for gathering in Canada had been to accommodate visiting researchers unable to obtain visas to enter the United States, especially in the current political climate. However there have been heated discussions in the Palais des Congrès hallways this week regarding problems obtaining Canadian visas, particularly for African researchers and the “Black in AI” identity group founded by Google AI Researcher Timnit Gebru.
During the conference’s opening session, NeurIPS Diversity & Inclusion Chairs Katherine Heller and Hal Daumé III expressed their concerns: “Many people have had their visas denied to NeurIPS… about half of the more than 200 people seeking visas at Black in AI have not received them.” The Chairs suggested future conference locations be chosen “with visa processing in mind” and that NeurIPS organizers more closely confer “with people handling visas on location.”
University of Toronto Scarborough Researcher Blake Richards tweeted: “The good news: The Canadian government wants to get this right and can listen to constructive criticism. The bad news: It will probably require a lot of pressure for real change to happen. So, to all Canadian AI peeps: write letters to the relevant ministers, repeatedly!”
Google Brain research scientist David Ha responded to Richards: “Maybe a few phone calls from CIFAR chairs and fellows will carry a bit more weight! I hope @JustinTrudeau will listen to the feedback.”
Leading Canadian AI researcher and head of MILA (Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms) Yoshua Bengio said the visa issue was “a shame for Canada”; while Facebook Chief Artificial Intelligence Scientist Yann LeCun announced that another huge AI gathering — the International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) — will be held in Africa in 2020 to avoid such access issues.
A Canadian government official told the Toronto Star it is addressing the visa problems “in as timely a manner as possible.” Aside from the visa issues, conference attendee Haque Ishfaq told Synced he was pleasantly surprised Vancouver will host both NeurIPS 2019 and 2020: “It is definitely a great idea that the conference will be in Canada again. I don’t think many people notice that Canada is a great option in terms of AI research.”
The Canadian government is backing everything AI with its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, announced in 2017. The initiative saw the creation of the Vector Institute in Toronto with Chief Scientific Advisor Geoffrey Hinton; and allocated CDN$125 million for AI R&D in the country. Toronto-Waterloo, Montréal and Edmonton are the new Canadian AI superclusters for funding, talents and businesses.
Streamlining the visa process for foreign researchers attending conferences would seem the next step for Canada if it wants to protect its emerging position on the global AI stage.
NeurIPS 2018 runs December 2–8 at the Palais des Congrès in Montréal, Canada. Synced will be reporting from the conference throughout the week.
Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen