Coronavirus and Machine Learning Conferences

I’ve been following the renamed COVID-19 epidemic closely since potential exponentials deserve that kind of attention.

The last few days have convinced me it’s a good idea to start making contingency plans for machine learning conferences like ICML. The plausible options happen to be structurally aligned with calls to enable reduced travel to machine learning conferences, but of course the need is much more immediate.

I’ll discuss relevant observations about COVID-19 and then the impact on machine learning conferences.

COVID-19 observations

  1. COVID-19 is capable of exponentiating with a base estimated at 2.13-3.11 and a doubling time around a week when unchecked.
  2. COVID-19 is far more deadly than the seasonal flu with estimates of a 2-3% fatality rate but also much milder than SARS or MERS. Indeed, part of what makes COVID-19 so significant is the fact that it is mild for many people leading to a lack of diagnosis, more spread, and ultimately more illness and death.
  3. COVID-19 can be controlled at a large scale via draconian travel restrictions. The number of new observed cases per day peaked about 2 weeks after China’s lockdown and has been declining for the last week.
  4. COVID-19 can be controlled at a small scale by careful contact tracing and isolation. There have been hundreds of cases spread across the world over the last month which have not created new uncontrolled outbreaks.
  5. New significant uncontrolled outbreaks in Italy, Iran, and South Korea have been revealed over the last few days. Some details:
    1. The 8 COVID-19 deaths in Iran suggests that the few reported cases (as of 2/23) are only the tip of the iceberg.
    2. The fact that South Korea and Italy can suddenly discover a large outbreak despite heavy news coverage suggests that it can really happen anywhere.
    3. These new outbreaks suggest that in a few days COVID-19 is likely to become a world-problem with a declining China aspect rather than a China-problem with ramifications for the rest of the world.

There remains quite a bit of uncertainty about COVID-19, of course. The plausible bet is that the known control measures remain effective when and where they can be exercised with new ones (like a vaccine) eventually reducing it to a non-problem.

The plausible scenario leaves conferences still in a delicate position because they require many things go right to function. We can easily envision 3 quite different futures here consistent with the plausible case.

  1. Good case New COVID-19 outbreaks are systematically controlled via proven measures with the overall number of daily cases declining steadily as they are right now. The impact on conferences is marginal with lingering travel restrictions affecting some (<10%) potential attendees.
  2. Poor case Multiple COVID-19 outbreaks turn into a pandemic (=multi-continent epidemic) in regions unable to effectively exercise either control measure. Outbreaks in other regions occur, but they are effectively controlled. The impact on conferences is significant with many (50%?) avoiding travel due to either restrictions or uncertainty about restrictions.
  3. Bad case The same as (2), except that an outbreak occurs in the area of the conference. This makes the conference nonviable due to travel restrictions alone. It’s notable here that Italy’s new outbreak involves travel lockdowns a few hundred miles/kilometers from Vienna where ICML 2020 is planned.

Even the first outcome could benefit from some planning while gracefully handling the last outcome requires it.

The obvious response to these plausible scenarios is to reduce the dependence of a successful conference on travel. To do this we need to think about what a conference is in terms of the roles that it fulfills. The quick breakdown I see is:

  1. Distilling knowledge. Luckily, our review process is already distributed.
  2. Passing on knowledge.
  3. Meeting people, both old friends and discovering new ones.
  4. Finding a job / employee.

How (and which) of these can be effectively supported remotely?

I’m planning to have discussions over the next few weeks about this to distill out some plans. If you have good ideas, let’s discuss. Unlike most contingency planning, it seems likely that efforts are not wasted no matter what the outcome šŸ™‚

Updates for the new decade

This blog has been quiet for the last year. I have quite a bit to write about but found myself often out of time between work at Microsoft, ICML duties, and family life. Nevertheless, I expect to get back to more substantive discussions as I adjust to the new load.

In the meantime, I’ve updated the site in various ways: SSL now works, and mail for people registering new accounts should work again.

I also setup a twitter account as I’ve often had things left unsaid. I’m not a fan of blog-by-twitter (which seems artificially disjointed), so I expect to use twitter for shorter things and for longer things.

FAQ on ICML 2019 Code Submission Policy

ICML 2019 has an option for supplementary code submission that the authors can use to provide additional evidence to bolster their experimental results. Since we have been getting a lot of questions about it, here is a Frequently Asked Questions for authors.

1. Is code submission mandatory?

No. Code submission is completely optional, and we anticipate that high quality papers whose results are judged by our reviewers to be credible will be accepted to ICML, even if code is not submitted.

2. Does submitted code need to be anonymized?

ICML is a double blind conference, and we expect authors to put in reasonable effort to anonymize the submitted code and institution. This means that author names and licenses that reveal the organization of the authors should be removed.

Please note that submitted code will not be made public — eg, only the reviewers, Area Chair and Senior Area Chair in charge will have access to it during the review period. If the paper gets accepted, we expect the authors to replace the submitted code by a non-anonymized version or link to a public github repository.

3. Are anonymous github links allowed?

Yes. However, they have to be on a branch that will not be modified after the submission deadline. Please enter the github link in a standalone text file in a submitted zip file.

4. How will the submitted code be used for decision-making?

The submitted code will be used as additional evidence provided by the authors to add more credibility to their results. We anticipate that high quality papers whose results are judged by our reviewers to be credible will be accepted to ICML, even if code is not submitted. However, if something is unclear in the paper, then code, if submitted, will provide an extra chance to the authors to clarify the details. To encourage code submission, we will also provide increased visibility to papers that submit code.

5. If code is submitted, do you expect it to be published with the rest of the supplementary? Or, could it be withdrawn later?

We expect submitted code to be published with the rest of the supplementary. However, if the paper gets accepted, then the authors will get a chance to update the code before it is published by adding author names, licenses, etc.

6. Do you expect the code to be standalone? For example, what if it is part of a much bigger codebase?

We expect your code to be readable and helpful to reviewers in verifying the credibility of your results. It is possible to do this through code that is not standalone — for example, with proper documentation.

7. What about pseudocode instead of code? Does that count as code submission?

Yes, we will count detailed pseudocode as code submission as it is helpful to reviewers in validating your results.

8. Do you expect authors to submit data?

We understand that many of our authors work with highly sensitive datasets, and are not asking for private data submission. If the dataset used is publicly available, there is no need to provide it. If the dataset is private, then the authors can submit a toy or simulated dataset to illustrate how the code works.

9. Who has access to my code?

Only the reviewers, Area Chair and Senior Area Chair assigned to your paper will have access to your code. We will instruct reviewers, Area Chair and Senior Area Chair to keep the code submissions confidential (just like the paper submissions), and delete all code submissions from their machine at the end of the review cycle. Please note that code submission is also completely optional.

10. I would like to revise my code/add code during author feedback. Is this permitted?

Unfortunately, no. But please remember that code submission is entirely optional.

The detailed FAQ as well other Author and Style instructions are availableĀ here.

Kamalika Chaudhuri and Ruslan Salakhutdinov
ICML 2019 Program Chairs

ICML is changing its constitution

Andrew McCallum has been leading an initiative to update the bylaws of IMLS, the organization which runs ICML. I expect most people aren’t interested in such details. However, the bylaws change rarely and can have an impact over a long period of time so they do have some real importance. I’d like to hear comment from anyone with a particular interest before this year’s ICML.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of the bylaws is the at-large election of members of the board which is preserved. Most of the changes between the old and new versions are aimed at better defining roles, committees, etc… to leave IMLS/ICML better organized.

Anyways, please comment if you have a concern or thoughts.

An ICML proposal: yearly surveys

I’d like to propose that ICML conducts a yearly survey similar to the one from 2010 or 2012 which is reported to all.

The key reason for this is information: I expect everyone participating in ICML has some baseline interest in how ICML is doing. Everyone involved has personal anecdotal information, but we all understand that a few examples can be highly misleading.

Aside from satisfying everyone’s joint curiousity, I believe this could improve ICML itself. Consider for example reviewing. Every program chair comes in with ideas for how to make reviewing better. Some succeed, but nearly all are forgotten by the next round of program chairs. Making survey information available will help quantify success and correlate it with design decisions.

The key question to ask for this is “who?” The reason why surveys don’t happen more often is that it has been the responsibility of program chairs who are typically badly overloaded. I believe we should address this by shifting the responsibility to a multiyear position, similar to or the same as a webmaster. This may imply a small cost to the community (<$1/participant) for someone's time to do and record the survey, but I believe it's a worthwhile cost. I plan to bring this up with IMLS board in Beijing, but would like to invite any comments or thoughts.