At one of the most prominent artificial intelligence (AI) conferences in the world last year, keynote speaker Elon Musk reportedly made a joke about “tits” on a stage in front hundreds of researchers and engineers. He seemed to be referring to the name of the mainstay AI conference, NIPS, and its unofficial pre-conference event, the suggestively named ‘TITS,’ which launched last year. The Neural Information Processing Systems conference, as it is formally known, is an event that draws in people from all across the AI and machine learning (ML) community, including employees of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
Reaction to the suggestive acronyms has been mixed and has launched a conversation about whether the name of the 31-year-running NIPS—which has sexual connotations and is also a racist slur for Japanese people—should be changed. But after surveying attendees, the board has decided to keep NIPS, leaving many in the notably male-dominated field feeling frustrated and spawning a Twitter hashtag campaign and a Change.org petition.
While discussion about the name has been percolating since last year’s conference—and has likely been a concern for some for much longer—the push to change the name intensified this week.
“The current acronym NIPS has unintended connotations that some members of the community find offensive,” reads a blog post about the survey on NIPS’ website. “Following several well-publicized incidents of insensitivity at past conferences, and our acknowledgment of other less-publicized incidents, we conducted community polls requesting alternative names, rating the existing and alternative names, and soliciting additional comments.”
According to NIPS, the survey was completed by 2270 members who had attended the conference in the last five years: 294 who identified as women, 1881 as men, and 95 who either stated another gender or did not identify themselves as men or women. The post states the results showed:
Of the male respondents, about 28% are in favor of a conference name change. Of the female respondents, about 44% are in favor of a name change, 40% prefer the existing name, and 16% expressed no preference. Looking closer, about as many females are strongly in favor of a name change (74/294 = 25%) as are strongly opposed (76/294 = 26%). There is some imbalance regarding age and geography: for example, among the young American females, the fraction of participants in favor of a name change is larger than in other subpopulations.
The post also includes anonymized comments from the poll, shared with permission, such as:
- Please, please please change the name. It is sexist and a racist slur!!! I’m embarrassed every time I have to say the name of the conference.
- As a woman, I find it offensive that the board is seriously considering changing the name of the meeting because of an adolescent reference to a woman’s body. From my point of view, it shows that the board does not see me as an equal member of the community, but as a woman first and a scientist second.
- I am a woman, I have experienced being harassed by male academics, and I would like this problem to be discussed and addressed. But not in this frankly almost offensive way.
On Monday, the NIPS board announced it would keep the name as “polling conducted by the Team did not yield a clear consensus, and no significantly better alternative name emerged.” Rather than change it, the board decided to come up with “concrete steps to improve the inclusiveness of the conference” and to “undertake new, substantive diversity and inclusion initiatives and take further steps towards ensuring that the conference is welcoming to all participants,” the blog post about the survey states.
But many people who have attended the conference were upset by the board’s decision.
Anima Anandkumar, a Caltech professor and director of machine learning research at Nvidia, started a Change.org petition on Wednesday urging NIPS board members to change the name. The petition states that the name has encouraged “unwelcome puns” like the TITS pre-conference and an offensive t-shirt slogan, which “add to the hostile environment that many ML researchers have unfortunately been experiencing.”
“These incidents have brought up uncomfortable memories for some of us whose career paths have been affected by unwelcoming or harassing behavior,” writes Anandkumar.
Anandkumar was also one of many who used the #ProtestNIPS hashtag to draw attention to the issue. By Friday afternoon, her petition had nearly 900 signatures.
Therese Koch, a neuroscience PhD student at UT Southwestern, similarly condemned the board’s decision in a Medium post titled “NIPS AI Conference to Continue Laughing about Nipples at the Expense of Women in Tech.” In the post, Koch states “the audience cheered Elon Musk as he joked about tits and nips in a keynote talk last year,” and says jokes about the name invite harassment.
Koch wrote that she initially felt the consideration to change the name “seemed like a step in the right direction,” though she realized that the survey itself was flawed.
“As a conference on what is essentially fancy statistics, you might expect them to have a better grasp on concepts like sampling bias,” Koch wrote. “Women may not unanimously agree that the name is offensive, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that 130 women who responded to the survey want the name to change (along with many men).”
Jeff Dean, Google’s head of AI, told Wired he intends to discuss his concerns over the name with the NIPS board. On Twitter, Dean said, “I think enough people are made to feel uncomfortable by the current name that the NIPS board should change the name of the @NipsConference. #ProtestNIPS.”
Terrence Sejnowski, president of the NIPS board, told Gizmodo that the group “has not ruled out reconsidering the name Neural Information Processing Systems at some point in the future,” but it wants to prioritize inclusiveness.
“Every effort was made to make the survey open and fair,” Sejnowski told Gizmodo in a statement. “We have received some direct feedback since the release of the decision about how the wording in the survey might have been more precise.”
Sejnowski also said the board “anticipated that the decision would be unpopular with some.”