Visa issues darken Canada’s moment in AI spotlight

London • A number of researchers due to attend a prestigious conference on artificial intelligence (AI) in Canada this week have been unable to obtain visas in time, leading some executives to question the government’s stated goal of becoming a world-leading destination for academics and companies developing the technology.

Complaints from prominent AI researchers and media reports prompted the Canadian government to approve some African researchers whose applications had been held up.

But the late-hour approvals seemed too little for a conference that started in Montreal last Sunday: Timnit Gebru, a Google AI researcher and a founder of Black in AI, said her group had tried to book last-minute flights for these academics, but that some hit additional roadblocks with connecting flights through Europe.

It’s unclear how many people have been affected by visa issues, but at least a dozen researchers circulated their stories on social media. Gebru estimated last week that 55% of the approximately 230 academics it had asked to attend the workshop had visa applications either denied or not processed in time to allow them to attend.

African Researchers Have Most Trouble

“It’s Africans living everywhere that are getting denied,” she said.

“This is not how you attract world-class AI talent to Canada,” Caleb Del Begio, the co-founder of Advize, a tech start-up in Vancouver, wrote on Twitter.

Jeff Dean, a computer scientist who leads AI research for Alphabet Inc’s Google, used Twitter to appeal directly to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (picture) to help remove the roadblocks.

“I believe that it’s important that researchers from populations that are under-represented in the field of machine learning be given the opportunity to participate in the conference and to present their research to the community,” Dean said in an emailed response to questions.

Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister, said the government had been working with the conference organisers to provide guidance on visa applications and has processed them “in as timely a manner as possible”.

While “we understand the disappointment of those whose visa applications were refused”, he said in an email, “all visitors to Canada must meet the requirement for temporary residence in Canada” and are assessed equally.

Name Changed

The conference has already courted controversy. It was better known by the acronym NIPS, but changed to NeurIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) earlier this month following complaints that the original acronym could have sexual connotations and was emblematic of an environment unfriendly to women. The organisers have said they’re working to make the event more inclusive.

NeurIPS is one of the top annual gatherings for people working on the cutting edge of AI and machine learning, drawing thousands of attendees.

As large technology companies, from Inc and Alphabet’s Google LLC to China’s Baidu Inc and Tencent Holdings Ltd, have played a bigger role in this research, it has become an important stage for showcasing their latest work as well as recruiting employees for their research labs.

Trudeau has been seeking to burnish his country’s reputation as an AI hot spot. While the US has built many more large technology companies, lots of the ideas underpinning current machine learning technologies were developed by academics working in Canada. Trudeau has sought to capitalise on this background to create more tech economy jobs.

The country has also tried to lure entrepreneurs and technology workers to Canada from the US, where the immigration reforms introduced by US President Donald Trump have made it harder for foreign nationals, especially those from the Middle Eastern and African nations, to remain.

Trudeau has introduced a new, streamlined visa process under which technology companies can bring in foreign employees.

In addition, Canada currently holds the presidency of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialised nations and it has organised a G-7 event on the future of AI, including its effect on jobs and issues surrounding regulation of AI, in Montreal to coincide with the NeurIPS conference.

To sidestep future visa problems, Yoshua Bengio, a world renowned machine learning researcher at the University of Montreal, said in a recent magazine interview that a
different machine learning conference, the International Conference on Learning Representations, would move to an African nation in 2020.

Visas are not the only issue, he said. Bengio said African computer scientists were already struggling with less access to computing power and IT infrastructure. — Bloomberg