Artificial Intelligence

Canadian government reversed most visa rejections affecting researchers for AI conference

The 2019 NeurIPS conference in Vancouver. Raghav Goyal | Twitter
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The Canadian government has reversed three-quarters of the rejections of visa applications from academics and researchers invited to this year’s NeurIPS conference in Vancouver, according to organizers.

Canadian immigration officials initially denied entry to 202 individuals set to attend NeurIPS 2019, billed as “the world’s biggest and most important AI conference.” The vast majority of those denied were nationals from African states. Of those, conference organizers say 158 have since had their visas approved after intervention from NeurIPS organizers along with Black in AI, a group aiming to “increase the presence of Black people in the field of Artificial Intelligence.”

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Many of the researchers denied entry are working on eliminating bias from AI data sets, according to a NeurIPS spokesperson. The conference, which began Sunday, continues until December 14.

Though less widespread than those affecting last year’s event, held in Montreal, the visa issues remain a sore point, particularly as NeurIPS organizers are trying to attract more visible minorities into the field. “We want to improve the visit-denial rate, which is really, really high right now,” said Katherine Heller, a researcher at Google Medical Brain and a diversity and inclusion chair on NeurIPS’ 2019 organizing committee.

Many of the denials came because Canadian immigration officials worried the academics wouldn’t return home after the conference, Heller said. In some cases, even letters from NeurIPS organizers weren’t enough to sway them.

Talking Point

For the second year in a row, visa rejections affected would-be attendees of the AI conference, being held this week in Vancouver. Though less widespread than last year’s, they remain a sore point for organizers and for the group Black in AI, which aims to improve representation in the field. However, world-renowned Montreal-based AI researcher Yoshua Bengio praised the Canadian government for its efforts to reverse the rejections.

“I certainly know from people who had their visas rejected that [immigration officials] said the invitation letters were faked,” said Heller. “One of the things they flag is that they’ve never left their home country before. Well, yeah, you can’t leave if you’re not going to get a visa anywhere.”

As of Monday, 158 rejected visa applications have since been approved, 14 are still in progress and five were denied, according to a NeurIPS spokesperson. (Some would-be attendees didn’t appeal their rejections, according to Heller.) NeurIPS was also able to fly in seven researchers from Nigeria and Uganda.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not provide comment before deadline.

Last year, over 100 would-be attendees of NeurIPS in Montreal couldn’t get into the country. Concern about visa issues prompted the International Conference on Learning Representations to move its 2020 iteration to Ethiopia.

Before this year’s edition of the conference, Montreal-based Yoshua Bengio, one of the world’s leading AI researchers, warned a repeat of the visa issues could hurt Canada’s image. “If the immigration services don’t change their ways, it is clear that it will deter international conference organizers from organizing their events in Canada,” he told VentureBeat in November. But in an email exchange last week with The Logic, Bengio praised the Canadian government’s attempts to address the visa problems affecting this year’s NeurIPS. 

“The government this year has gone out of its way to try to (and mostly succeed) to reverse the many rejection decisions which were initially made …. It has been a huge improvement compared to last year,” he said. 

NeurIPS will return to Vancouver next year before moving to Australia for its 2021 edition. According to Bengio, the visa issue had nothing to do with the conference moving from Canada. “These contracts are signed years in advance,” he said.