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 is capable of exponentiating with a base estimated at 2.13-3.11 and a doubling time around a week when unchecked.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- New significant uncontrolled outbreaks in Italy, Iran, and South Korea have been revealed over the last few days. Some details:
- The 8 COVID-19 deaths in Iran suggests that the few reported cases (as of 2/23) are only the tip of the iceberg.
- The fact that South Korea and Italy can suddenly discover a large outbreak despite heavy news coverage suggests that it can really happen anywhere.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Distilling knowledge. Luckily, our review process is already distributed.
- Passing on knowledge.
- Meeting people, both old friends and discovering new ones.
- 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 🙂