MONTREAL, CANADA—Dozens of African researchers were denied visas for an artificial intelligence (AI) meeting here last week, even as the Canadian government takes steps to advance the country’s standing in AI and the field aims for greater inclusivity.
Black in AI, a daylong workshop for scientists of African descent held in conjunction with the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), a leading AI conference, had invited more than 200 scientists from Africa to participate. But about half of the visa applications led to denials or acceptances so delayed that the researchers were unable to attend. “It looks like we have some inconsistency between what one part of government does and what another does,” says Yoshua Bengio, a NeurIPS organizer and professor at the University of Montreal.
NeurIPS is the largest AI conference in the world. This year, more than 8500 people came for academic talks, conversations with job recruiters, and social events. Conference organizers foresaw problems obtaining visas for foreign invitees and reached out to the Canadian government for help in July. Still, out of 230 Africans, about 15% heard back too late to attend or not at all. Another 33% were denied visas.
Mathieu Genest, the press secretary for Canada’s immigration minister in Ottawa, explained in an email that “Visa applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis. … Decisions are made by highly trained, independent visa officers.” Everyone gets evaluated on the same criteria, regardless of where they’re from, he added in an interview.
The most common reason Canadian officials offered for denying a visa was that the applicant might not return home after the event, citing travel history, finances, or insufficient employment. In many cases, Canada also decided that letters of recommendation that Bengio had written for invitees were fraudulent, without explaining the reason or checking with Bengio.
Bengio calls fears that foreign researchers would stay in Canada absurd. “Why would a Ph.D. student in Africa doing research in AI become an illegal immigrant in Canada and end up washing dishes and living undercover?” he says. “We all know that their skills are in high demand and that they’ll be able to get very good jobs almost anywhere.”
Some NeurIPS invitees from Asia and Eastern Europe were also denied visas, Bengio says. But the high rejection and no-response rate for Africans—nearly 50%—“raise the possibility that bias, discrimination, and racism are part of the explanation.”
The day before Black in AI, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the headquarters of Element AI here—a company co-founded by Bengio—to announce an additional $230 million in federal funding for the field. When asked about the Black in AI visa issue, he told reporters someone would look into it.
That pledge came too late for Mwiza Simbeye, a co-founder of AgriPredict, an app for identifying diseased crops, and a student at the African Leadership University in Kigali. He had won a Google fellowship and hoped to attend NeurIPS to meet his mentor. Coming from Rwanda, he was denied a visa twice, despite three recommendation letters—from NeurIPS, Google, and Black in AI.
Canada also denied a visa to Tejumade Afonja, who co-organizes AI Saturdays Lagos, a study group in Nigeria, and works at InstaDeep, an AI company founded in Africa. She was invited to present work on ChowNet, a database of images of African food to help train image-recognition software. “I really felt so bad for not being able to attend,” Afonja says.
NeurIPS will take place in Vancouver, Canada, in 2019 and 2020, but growing concern about visa issues means Canada risks losing other conferences. In 2020, to avoid visa issues, the International Conference on Learning Representations, a top AI conference co-founded by Bengio, will take place in Ethiopia.
Timnit Gebru, a researcher at Google in Mountain View, California, and co-founder of Black in AI, says African scientists’ difficulty obtaining visas for Canada is “a long-standing problem” that demands attention. “This happens every day and no one cares,” Afonja says. “We are shedding more light on the process. They are denying a lot of people the opportunity to do amazing stuff.”