Why a Major AI Conference Is Headed to Ethiopia

The International Conference on Learning Representations, which brings together AI researchers from around the world, is heading to Africa in 2020. Recently, researchers of African descent have faced challenges getting travel visas to North America and Europe.

To many professionals around the world, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, isn’t as well known as an international meetings destination as, say, Barcelona, London, or Beijing. But for the attendees whom the International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) aims to attract, it might be the best place to ensure that they’re able to show up.

The annual conference, which focuses on artificial intelligence in all its forms, has traditionally been held in North America or Europe, with last year’s event taking place in Vancouver, Canada, and next year’s headed to New Orleans. But in 2020, the conference will go to Addis Ababa, after AI researchers from African nations had trouble making it to Canada-based technology events this year.

VentureBeat reported that the issue was particularly troublesome for members of Black in AI, an global group of researchers of African descent who mostly interact via social media. Many of its members planned to meet at an event called NeurIPS in Montreal next month but had difficulty obtaining visas.

Yoshua Bengio, a Canadian deep learning expert who helped create ICLR, said a desire to increase access to the community for researchers from developing countries drove the decision to locate the 2020 conference to Ethiopia, which is seen as one of the continent’s emerging AI hot spots.

“In Europe or the U.S. or Canada, it is very difficult for an African researcher to get a visa. It’s a lottery, and very often they will use any excuse to refuse access. This is totally unfair,” he said in an interview with the MIT Technology Review. “It is already hard for them to do research with little resources, but in addition if they can’t have access to the community, I think that’s really unfair.”

The decision reflects a growing need for in-person scientific meetings in the region to enable networking and information exchange. Researchers working under sub-Saharan African governments often face funding challenges, according to a recent Quartz story citing a report by the Collaboration for Research Excellence in Africa. The study found that up to 85 percent of the researchers surveyed, including some with more than five years of experience, had worked for free on their projects.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the location of the 2020 International Conference on Learning Representations. (mustafa6noz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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