4 min read

The ‘Neural Information Processing Systems’, also known as ‘NIPS’ is a well known for hosting the most influential AI conferences over the past 32 years, all around the globe. The conference is organized by NIPS Foundation and brings together researchers from biological, psychological, technological, mathematical, and theoretical areas of science and engineering – including the big names of the tech industry like Google, Nvidia, Facebook, and Microsoft.

The acronym of the conference has been receiving a lot of attention from members worldwide over the past few years. Some members of the community have pointed out that the current acronym ‘NIPS’ has unintended connotations which makes the name sound “sexist“ On the other hand, the decision of bringing about a name change only added further confusion and frustration.

In August 2018, the organizers of the conference conducted a  poll on the NIPS website asking people whether they agree or disagree with the potential name change.

This was done taking cue from the several well-publicized incidents of insensitivity at past conferences. The poll requested alternative names for the conference, rating of the existing and alternative names, and encouraging additional comments from members.

“Arguments in favor of keeping the existing name include a desire to respect the intellectual tradition that brought the meeting to where it is today and the strong brand that comes with this tradition. Arguments in favor of changing the name include a desire to better reflect the modern scope of the conference and to avoid distasteful connotations of the name.”
– Organizers of NIPS

Out of the 2270 participants who took the survey,  over 86% were male, around 13% were female, and 0.01% other gender or non-responsive. A key question in the poll was: “Do you think we should change the name of the NIPS conference?” To this, around 30% of the respondents said they support the name change (28% males and about 44% females) while 31% ‘strongly disagreed’ with the name change proposal (31% male and 25% female).

Here is the summary of the response distribution:

                                                   Source: nips.cc

Some respondents also questioned whether the name was deliberately selected for a double entendre. But the foundation denies the claims as the name was selected in 1987, and sources such as Oxford English Dictionary show that the slang reference to a body part did not come into usage until years later.

To the foundation, the results of the poll did not provide any useful insights to the situation. The first poll resulted in a long list of alternative names. Most of them being unsuitable for reasons like- existing brand, too close to names of other conferences, offensive connotations in some language.  After shortlisting six names, a second poll was conducted. None of these names were strongly preferred by the community.

Since the polls have not returned a consensus result, the foundation has decided not to change the name of the conference- at least for now.

Here are some of the comments posted on the NIPS website (with permission)

“Thanks for considering the name change. I am not personally bothered by the current name, which is semi-accurate and has no ill intent — but I think the gesture of making a name change will send a much-needed inclusive vibe in the right direction”
“If it were up to me, I’d call off this nice but symbolic gesture and use whatever time, money, and energy it requires to make actual changes that boost inclusivity, like providing subsidized child care so that parents can attend, or offering more travel awards to scholars from lesser-developed countries”

“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”

Much of the feedback received from its members pointed towards taking a more substantive approach to diversity and inclusivity. Taking this into account, The NIPS code of conduct was implemented, two Inclusion and Diversity chairs were appointed to the organizing committee and, childcare support for NIPS 2018 Conference in Montreal has been introduced. In addition, NIPS has welcomed the formation of several co-located workshops focused on diversity in the field.  NIPS is also extending support to additional groups, including Black in AI (BAI), Queer in AI@NIPS, Latinx in AI (LXAI), and Jews in ML (JIML).

Twitter saw some pretty strong opinions on this decision-

The foundation hopes that the community’s support will help in improving the inclusiveness of the conference for its diverse set of members.

Head over to the Neural Information Processing Systems Blog post for more insights on this news.

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