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 🙂

7 Replies to “Coronavirus and Machine Learning Conferences”

  1. I’d like to see the computational linguistics community thinking along these lines as well. Let me know if I can help.

  2. Can we envision a totally distributed conference? It could have the following aspects:
    1. All presentations made available as videos
    2. The conference provides a tool for helping attendees select a set of presentations to watch/read
    3. Each presenter and each attendee makes a list of times when they would be available for one-on-one or small group discussions.
    4. The conference provides a scheduling tool that proposes a schedule of feasible one-on-one or small group discussions. People then confirm or reject those proposed discussions
    5. Maybe we also think about each speaker doing something similar to an ask-me-anything large group discussion at a designated time. Maybe these are captured and linked to the paper (e.g., via OpenReview?)

    1. The intermediate point where a conference is both distributed and localized seems a bit more difficult than completely distributed, essentially because of the need to deal with two sets of constraints.

      This might be the sort of thing where we experience a phase change at some point in the future.

      1. I like the idea of something between totally distributed and localized.

        As one example, we could have simultaneous conference meetups at a number of venues, authors/attendees get to go to the venue closest to them. And together with live-streaming of talks, sessions, etc., we can also take many of Tom’s suggested steps for a distributed conference.

        As a related aside, one logistical difficulty currently faced by many Chinese students in the US is that their visas are expired/expiring, many conferences are outside the US this year, which makes travel difficult since it is not feasible to get their US visas renewed in China currently due to travel restrictions.

  3. I’m a bit surprised by the apparent lack of communication from the ICLR organizers. The situation reports and Ethiopia’s preparedness plan were posted to the website but there was no associated statement. Is that surprising to any of you?

    Are organizers not going to discuss what is a worrying situation, or are potential attendees left to work out what they will do?

    I mean, if it goes ahead there could be changes to how it is run (eg. cancelling social events, having extra sanitation stations etc.)

    1. I know (due to overlap with the ICML board) there are some discussions now ongoing amongst ICLR organizers.

      I’ll encourage them to announce something more substantive soon.

      For ICML there is somewhat more time available.

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