I was conference chair for NIPS 2013 together with Zoubin Ghahramani (but I only speak for myself in what I write below). Mark Zuckerberg visited NIPS and created quite stir. And discussion about the role of companies at NIPS. Here is my perspective on the issue.
First, I think it's great to have this discussion, because it's clear that the field is rapidly changing. I view corporate involvement of this magnitude as an interesting experiment that we have to work through and reevaluate every year. As with everything there are advantages and disadvantages to corporate involvement. Here are a few I can see:
-Industry is an integrated part part of our ecosystem from which we hugely benefit. Our students have good jobs (with higher salaries than mine). I have never heard of anyone being worried that their students could not find a job. That's a huge blessing.
-Industry helps us with funding our fundamental research and our conferences. There are many faculty grants that support fundamental research that only needs to be tangentially related to the main mission of the company. Industry also pays for a good chunk of our registration fees, meals, student awards etc.
-Some companies, in particular Microsoft, operate as an op research lab, allowing their employees to serve the community as reviewers, area chairs, workshop organizers and even program chairs (see last years program chairs at NIPS 2012). Their research papers are just as interesting as papers coming out of academia.
-Industry labs may accelerate the pace at which our field develops. We may actually need their resources (data and computational infrastructure) to make the next leap in building truly intelligent AI systems. These successes may generate enthusiasm among our new students entering the field, further accelerating progress.
- Reproducibility. There is a certain danger that more datasets and algorithm details will be locked behind the company's firewall. It's not good if talks have classified elements, or certain questions can not be answered. Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has developed the best ever face recognition system in just under three months. That's super exciting, but will we have access to it (either to the parameters of the deep net, or to the dataset and algorithm used to train it)? In other words, can we reproduce their results?
-The Google question (soon the be renamed as the Facebook question). I am often reviewed by a mix of astronomers, mathematicians and computer scientists (The Netherlands is a small country..). I have been confronted more often than I like with what has become known as "the Google question": if this research can be done at Google with many more resources, why should we grant you this money? So here our close connection to industry fires back because it is not considered as "fundamental research" by many who don't understand how we operate.
-Is it desirable that big companies lure our best students away to improve ad-placement, where they could also have contributed to curing some of the horrible diseases that plague mankind? Perhaps not, but people have the right to make their own decisions.
And as to Mark Zuckerberg's visit. I found it super exciting! I think it's a small price to pay that certain workshops were temporarily under-attended. But I agree that NIPS should not be turned into a publicity and recruitment event for big companies. We should acknowledge that our field is a complex ecosystem that involves both academia and industry. Our challenge is to find the right balance.