‘Abandon US’ Petition Protests AI Conference Visa Denials

Synced
May 7 · 5 min read

A French-based research scientist has collected almost 300 signatures on an online petition calling for organizers of major computer science conferences such as SIGGRAPH, NeurIPS, ICML, CVPR, etc. to exclude the US as a host. Citing the “many hurdles with obtaining a visa”, the petition is the latest pushback against a spate of visa denials for non-US researchers hoping to attend AI conferences in that country.

Last year respected Dutch scientist and Professor of Information Retrieval at the University of Amsterdam Maarten de Rijke had six publications accepted by SIGIR 2018, the world’s top conference in the field of information retrieval. De Rijke was a scheduled panelist and, along with with his students, was organizing a workshop and presenting a tutorial for the conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, USA. However, because de Rijke had spoken on data science in Iran in November 2017, his US visa application was denied.

The US is not the only country being criticized for visa rejections. Last year dozens of African researchers were denied visas by the Canadian government for top AI conference NeurIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) in Montréal. A number of junior US-based researchers also got rejected. Google Computer Scientist and Technical Co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team Timnit Gebru tweeted: “someone got denied a visa to go to Canada from the US, because the Canadian embassy said that they don’t believe she will come back to the US where she is a graduate student.”

The new petition was initiated by Sergey Ivanov. Born and raised in Russia, Ivanov holds a Master’s and PhD in Computer Science and works for a Paris-based Internet company. He was invited to present his accepted paper at ICLR 2019 (International Conference for Learning Representations) in New Orleans this month, but both he and his co-author’s visas were denied. Ivanov says this is the fifth time he has received administrative processing in the visa application to attend a US-hosted computer science conferences.

“I stayed away from the politics for the whole my life, never expressed at any government. I love science and was always trying to apply my skillset and education to produce new scientific results and I am frustrated to undergo this procedure so many times,” Ivanov wrote in an message to Synced.

“The situation is especially prevalent in the United States, where the citizens of many countries have to wait for months to receive a visa for a 5-day trip to the conference … countries such as Iran, Russia, and China are under a barrage of scrutiny directed at attendees and authors of the research work.”

Visa delays and rejections for computer science conferences seem to be increasing. Although conference organizers do not typically publish info on attendees absent due to visa issues, rejected researchers have turned to social media to make their cases known.

Obtaining a US visa can take months. “One has to take an appointment to the embassy, which can take up to a month in countries like France and up to a year in countries like Russia. At the appointment the embassy will take your passport and supporting documents and with 95% will send you to administrative processing that takes 2 months,” Ivanov writes in the petition.

Many researchers have accused the US government under President Donald Trump of imposing even stricter policies that can ban for example researchers with Muslim backgrounds from visiting the country. Foreign research engineers are also likely to be scrutinized during the application process.

Ivanov’s petition has triggered a heated discussion on Reddit, receiving both support and criticism that it can’t practically accomplish its goal. User Martingale-G wrote “the US is the biggest funder of ML research (private + public) besides China, so completely excluding the US as a conference location is just not realistic since most US researchers aren’t interested in constantly traveling abroad.”

Turing Award recipient Yoshua Bengio told MIT Tech Review that leading AI conference ICLR 2020 will be held in Africa to ensure local scientists can demonstrate their research and network with peers. SIGAR meanwhile will be held in Paris this year.

On his website, de Rijke explains “There is no point in lowering myself to the standards of a policy that I oppose and to stop submitting papers to conferences that are being held in the US. Halting the conversation is never the answer. It’s neither helpful nor effective in promoting what is essential to my job as a professor. The pursuit of science ‘requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists’ … Scientific progress and human and environmental well-being are our collective responsibility. Open exchange of people and ideas are key to fulfilling such collective responsibilities.”

AI researchers have previously turned to petitions on this issue. At NAACL 2018, UMD Professor Hal Daume III sent the ACL board a petition signed by 200 NLP researchers requesting presenters who had papers at NAACL 2018 but who were unable to attend due to visa issues be allowed to present their papers at ACL 2018 or EMNLP 2018 as part of a “present anywhere policy.”

Ivanov says his goal is to collect as many signatures as possible: “We believe we can make it to 1000. But in any case we would like to raise the awareness of this problem and attract the leaders of the computer science community to look at this problem and make the right actions.”


Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen


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We produce professional, authoritative, and thought-provoking content relating to artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, emerging technologies and industrial insights.