How Trump’s ‘extreme vetting’ hurts science and tech

Advanced tech conferences, which draw large international audiences, could suffer

visa passport immigration

Details of President Donald Trump's plans for "extreme vetting" of visa applicants have emerged and they are clearly demanding. Getting a visa will require people from many countries to turn over social media handles, employment history and other information.

These policies are a concern for technical and academic conferences on issues such as supercomputing and artificial intelligence. These conferences often draw attendees from around the globe.

The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in February in San Francisco, for instance, was attended by people from more than 40 countries.

Nearly half of the AAAI's 1,818 attendees, a new record, were from outside the U.S. That number included 275 from China, a 76% increase from last year.

"We are very much concerned about the impact in the coming years," said Subbarao Kambhampati, the president of the AAAI and a professor at Arizona State University's School of Computing and Informatics.

The next AAAI conference will be held in February 2018 in New Orleans. Its executive council is already discussing "proactive plans," which include "...letting prospective authors know that we will facilitate remote presentation and participation in the event of their travels being affected by these new restrictions," said Kambhampati.

The extreme vetting program applies to people who are not from 38 countries covered in the visa waiver program, which includes European nations and Australia, but not the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia. These attendees may have to provide quite a bit of information about themselves to obtain a visa.

Diplomatic cables that were obtained by Reuters detail what extreme vetting requires, such as the applicant's travel history over 15 years, prior occupations, phone numbers used in the last five years, as well as all email addresses and social media handles used in that period. It will likely add time to visa processing and may discourage some people from attending conferences in the U.S.

Trump's initial seven-nation ban in late January was rolled out right around the time the AAAI was holding its conference.

"We scrambled to make last-minute arrangements for people who were unable to travel," said Kambhampati. Those efforts included allowing remote presentations by authors outside the U.S.

Trump's first set of executive orders, which were stayed by the courts, didn't have a big impact on the AAAI's February conference.

"While we are doing what we can, clearly we are at best M*A*S*H units trying to ameliorate the adverse impacts in some small ways," said Kambhampati. "Free flow of people and ideas are after all essential for any scientific enterprise."

The large annual supercomputing conference last year, SC16, took place in November in Salt Lake City and was attended by about 12,000 people. This year's theme is  "inclusivity" and the event routinely draws people from around the globe.

Taner Akcam, a history professor at Clark University, said the new travel policies "will cost the United States its position as a leading nation in science. Other nations will be able to advance and our country will be the loser in this situation."

The White House policy presents "uncomfortable practices and practical problems," said Akcam. Among the concerns: Will a visa be issued? Will customs authorities grant admission? And can a computer be used on a plane?

"We scholars mostly prepare our talks or last-minute preparations during such a flight," said Akcam. "To ask us not to use the computer is like saying, 'Don't eat or drink.'"

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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