As artificial intelligence scholars from around the world gather for a top-tier conference in New York that convenes Friday, one group of nationals will be largely absent.

The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, organizer of AAAI-20, said in an email reply that it expects “a very large number” of participants based in China to be unable to attend the conference due to the current coronavirus outbreak, although it did not elaborate how many.

“Sophia” the robot is seen on stage before a discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) at the RISE Technology Conference in Hong Kong in July 2018. There is concern that the rapidly spreading coronavirus might further constrain global tech exchanges in the AI community. (Picture: AFP)

The AAAI has asked the AI community to help with setting up “remote participation” for the event and has stepped up efforts to find replacement speakers for those affected, according to a statement posted on its website.

AAAI-20 is not the only tech-focused event that expects to shrink in size due to the global impact of the virus. Korea’s LG Electronics decided to withdraw from the Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile technology fair scheduled for Barcelona, Spain, later this month, while Chinese telecoms giant ZTE announced on Wednesday that it would cancel its press conference at MWC while going ahead with other events “as planned.”

There is concern that the rapidly spreading pneumonia-like illness might further constrain global tech exchanges in the AI community amid the ongoing tech war between the US and China.

“Until it stabilizes, the coronavirus outbreak is likely to exert a significant impact on myriad forms of technical and business exchanges,” said Brock Silvers, Hong Kong-based managing director of Adamas Asset Management. “Technology has improved remote communications, but nothing can replace face-to-face meetings.”

“[As] the coronavirus situation is unlikely to be resolved in days or even weeks, the resulting near-term chaos and travel restrictions are likely to cause a significant chill in all sorts of Sino-US business relations, particularly in fast-moving sectors such as AI,” he said.

In an effort to contain the outbreak, the US began implementing travel restrictions on Sunday that include temporarily denying entry to foreign nationals who have visited China in the 14 days before their arrival.

Restrictions also apply to US citizens who have been in China's Hubei province, where the first cases were found, in the two weeks before their return to the US. They will be subject to a mandatory quarantine of up to 14 days.

The outbreak, which coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday travel season, has caused more than 560 deaths among some 28,000 infections in mainland China as of Thursday afternoon. Around the world there were hundreds of confirmed cases in more than two dozen countries and regions, including the US, Japan, Germany and Britain.

“We’re incredibly disappointed that the coronavirus and travel restrictions are impacting so many participants at AAAI, but the health of everyone involved is obviously what’s most important,” said Ariel Conn, a representative of the association, in an emailed reply on Wednesday.

Chinese search giant Baidu and Tongdun Technology, a Hangzhou-based risk management start-up, are among the leading conference sponsors along with US firms IBM, Google AI, Amazon and Apple.

In a written response, Baidu said 28 papers submitted by its own authors had been accepted by AAAI-20, adding that the company would, if necessary, seek alternative methods to participate and present its papers in support of AI collaboration.

Tongdun Technology did not respond immediately to an emailed request for comment.

Still, not everyone believes the impact of the outbreak will stand in the way of global academic exchanges, and see it as limited compared to other issues like the tech war.

Facial-recognition technology is demonstrated at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai in August 2019. (Picture: Bloomberg)

“We have seen virus outbreaks before [and this one is unlikely to] hit the fundamentals of AI development,” said Jeffrey Towson, a private equity investor and professor at Peking University, adding that the deterioration in the US-China relationship would have a far more serious impact on AI collaboration.

Flight restrictions are expected to be short term whereas the longer term issue is whether Chinese scholars wanting to visit the US for research and development or doctorate candidates looking for job opportunities upon graduation are able to get US visas, according to Towson.

“How China and the US is going to engage remains a big question,” he said.