Researchers Blocked at the Border Some African AI researchers blocked from attending NeurIPS

Reading time
2 min read
Leaf stuck on a chain link fence

Foreign researchers hoping to attend one of AI’s largest conferences were denied entry into Canada, where the event will be held. Most of those blocked were from developing nations.

What happened: This year’s Conference on Neural Processing Information Systems (NeurIPS) is being held in Vancouver, Canada, in December. The country’s Ministry of Immigration rejected visas for a number of researchers, mostly from Africa.

Gatekeeping gaffe:
It’s unclear exactly how many researchers were blocked, but organizers for the conference’s Black in AI workshop said they were aware of around 30 people affected.

  • Canada’s immigration ministry screens visitors for signs that indicate they might overstay their visa. The agency, for example, flags individuals from countries that are poor or at war, especially if they also have relatives living in Canada.
  • NeurIPS had anticipated that attendees might experience difficulties getting through Canada’s border, and had been working with immigration officials since May to help smooth the process.
  • After NeurIPs organizers complained, officials allowed 15 researchers whose visas initially were denied to enter the country. The rest are still under review.
  • “While we cannot comment on the admissibility of any particular individual, we can say that, in general, all visitors to Canada must meet the requirements for temporary residence in Canada, as set out in Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” the ministry told the BBC by email.

Behind the news: This isn’t the first time Canada has blocked researchers seeking to attend NeurIPS. Over 100 researchers bound for last year’s event in Montreal were held back. At the 2018 meeting of the G7, Wired confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over whether Canada’s immigration policy undermined its goal to become an AI powerhouse. In September, the Partnership on AI suggested a new visa category for AI researchers.

Why it matters: Conferences aren’t just opportunities tor share ideas. They’re opportunities for researchers to form important professional relationships. Policies like Canada’s keep developers from developing economies on the margins. The International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) is holding its 2020 conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, because of the difficulty African researchers have entering places like the U.S., UK, and Canada.

We’re thinking: We encourage conferences to schedule meetings in developing nations. A global research community benefits all nations. We need to make sure the rewards of AI — and, more broadly, science — are shared fairly. Pushing hard to make knowledge accessible to all is the ethical thing to do.


Subscribe to The Batch

Stay updated with weekly AI News and Insights delivered to your inbox