Organizing Black in AI 2020

Victor Silva, M. Sc.
5 min readDec 16, 2020
Attendees from the Black in AI 2019 posing for a picture in Vancouver (Photo by Timnit Gebru)

The 4th Black in AI workshop co-located with NeurIPS 2020 happened on the week December 7th 2020. The workshop was set to happen in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Because of the pandemic, the workshop happened in a virtual format for the first time. It was chaired by AI4Society student Victor Silva.

The black in AI a place for sharing ideas, fostering collaborations, and discussing initiatives to increase the presence of Black people in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

What is Black in AI?

Black in AI (BAI) was created in 2015 after researcher Timnit Gebru observed that there were not too many researchers in the largest conference in Artificial Intelligence in the world, NeurIPS. With co-founder Rediet Abebe and other people in the field, she created the Black in AI workshop, co-located with NeurIPS. Since then, Black in AI has evolved from only the workshop to become an initiative to support Black, African and Diasporic individuals. It received its Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and created programs such as an academic position program that serves over 400 people to navigate challenges such as joining graduate programs, navigating graduate school and entering the industry in Artificial Intelligence. Black in AI also advocates for waiving fees for those who can’t afford it and removing GRE requirements from graduate school admissions. Moreover, the institutions provides assistance and funding for graduate students.

Timnit Gebru and Rediet Abebe (left) pose with peers at the Bloomberg 50 Event (Photo by Bloomberg)

Historically, less than 20 black students graduate with Computing Science PhD’s each year in North America. Black in AI helped over 200 black students to apply each year and provides resources, online sessions, and mentorships. For instance, many of BAI mentees have graduated from top schools worldwide like Stanford, Oxford, New York University, to name a few. This year BAI is aiming at increasing the amount of Black faculty in North America. According to a survey made by the institution, there are only 85 black faculty in Computing Science in the US and Canada. BAI has helped over 90 mentees to apply to post-doctorate faculty and research scientists jobs this year.

Black in AI 2020 Workshop

The 2020 Workshop was the first time where BAI happened solely online. To provide more interactivity, a virtual world was created where users could navigate an avatar and interact with each other and the world using audio and video.

Screenshot of the virtual world created for Black in AI 2020

The workshop also featured a poster session where users could interact with authors and their respective posters. This poster session was shared with other affinity workshops, namely: Women in ML, Queer in AI and Indigenous in AI. In total, there were over 100 submissions to BAI 2020 and 58 presentations of accepted papers. The research presented in the workshop represented 16 countries from the Americas, Africa, and Europe.

The workshop featured a Best Paper award: “Symptoms, Scares, and Misclassifications: Information Sharing Behavior Across Online Birth Control Communities” by LeAnn McDowall and Maria Antoniak.

One of the many challenging tasks of running a workshop online is to make sure that every participant can fully experience it. Firstly, the workshop waived NeurIPS fees, to make it more accessible (joining the BAI workshop requires a NeurIPS registration). BAI also had to be accessible for those in countries where internet access is costly and limited. To address the internet accessibility challenge, BAI partnered with NeurIPS to create a Data Grant subsidy. This program provided data for those who needed most, specially in Africa.

How was AI4Society present at Black in AI?

AI4Society was represented by Victor Silva, a PhD Student Victor Silva at the University of Alberta under supervision of Dr. Eleni Stroulia and Dr. Joerg Sander. Victor first volunteered with BAI in 2018. Subsequently, he was invited to be the Recruitment Chair of BAI 2019. In this positions, he boosted the participation of Black and Diasporic individuals from South America with special focus in Brazil by six-fold.

Brazilian Researchers posing for a Picture at Black in AI 2019

He also helped BAI to land a new partnership that brought African Americans and students from Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to Black in AI. The Black in AI 2019 had a record number of 450 papers submitted and more than 500 attendees. Black and AI was able to fund over 200 black students and/or practitioners to attend and present their research at the 2019 workshop. The attendees were provided with travel and accommodation for the workshop and for the full NeurIPS conference.

Black People and Canadian Visas

In 2018 there was controversy when the Canadian Government denied several visas to Black Researchers to attend Black in AI in Montreal, challenging that Dr. Yoshua Bengio corroborated invitation letters. There was no resolution to the Visa problem and the Government made a commitment to be more transparent and helpful with the Visa process for research conferences. In 2019, again, the workshop faced several challenges to bring black researchers to attend NeurIPS in Vancouver. Victor and his co-chairs negotiated a historic turnaround in visas for Black in AI attendees. Initially, the Government of Canada had refused about 30% of the visas to Black individuals, compared to 5% visa refusals to White individuals. That disparity raised a discussion on whether Black people were in disadvantage with respect to the Canadian visa system. Victor collaborated with other chairs, immigration officers and Embassies in several countries to revert those Visa refusals. Ultimately, about only 5% of the visas were refused after negotiation and revision by the Government of Canada.

References

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/canada-denies-ai-visas-1.5361812

[2] https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/canada-denies-numerous-researchers-visas-for-ai-conference-for-second-year-1.1348845

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/13/tech/ai-conference-african-academics/index.html

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Victor Silva, M. Sc.

Data Science | Finance | Machine Learning | Ethics| I hold two M.Sc. in Computer Science and I’m a PhD Researcher at the University of Alberta.