As I sit here in our Airbnb after a week full of positive energy, inclusivity, collaboration and inspiration, I can’t help but reflect on and try to digest everything that has happened. That includes not only what it meant to go to Deep Learning Indaba (DLIndaba) as an InstaDeep’er, but also on what this conference meant to me as an African.

To give you some context, DLIndaba is THE African Deep Learning conference. The first edition was in 2017, and this year I had the opportunity to attend with one of the greatest teams I could join; InstaDeep, who I joined earlier this year.

Deep Learning Indaba, so what?

Trust me, DLIndaba is not the most common conference you’ll go to or hear about, and allow me to tell you why. Indaba is a group of volunteers who bring together Africans for a week of learning, showcasing work, collaboration, and rewards. This year they gathered 500 people to the event, which aims to create an inclusive environment where Africans will not be regarded as people seeking help, but like people who can produce and be elites in what they do, and more specifically in a field like Machine Learning.

To make this conference as inclusive as possible, the organisers were able to provide more than 200 young Africans with scholarships to join and get the most out of the learning, just like anyone else. With speakers like Jeff Dean, David Silver, Nando De Freitas, Kyunghyun Cho, Moustapha Cisse and Shakir Mohamed, we were undoubtedly served in terms of inspiration, modesty and exchange.

Not only did we have the opportunity to learn from the high-level speakers who were invited, but we also benefited from meaningful discussions with other participants. I was especially delighted to go through the posters that showcase the tremendous research work that Africans have been able to deliver.

What I usually enjoy most about conferences is networking and talking to people. I consider this one of the most significant sources of knowledge and inspiration at events, seeing the talks can often be too general, repetitive or simply stereotypical after a while. However, at Indaba, I found that the well-organised theoretical and practical sessions, allowed for a severe and hugely beneficial flow of knowledge transfer, with sessions spanning from basic deep learning fundamentals to probabilistic thinking and reinforcement learning. Furthermore, for technical sessions, even though those were held at a huge auditorium that could easily fit 500+ people, the interaction was highly present, with the possibility to directly go to the speaker after the session for a chat. Bonus point that all of the slides and practical’s can be found on the website. Please do enjoy taking a look at those!

Excellence, diversity (the authentic one), and hard work were what characterised Indaba this year. And those are the exact values that InstaDeep goes by.

InstaDeep in all of this

If I can put the experience as an InstaDeep’er in three words, it would be excellence, teamwork and drive.

The teamwork was especially visible during the days and nights leading to Indaba (and during!), in which multiple teams kept working tirelessly to improve the demos and website to make the event a success.

Let me summarise the highlights of the experience:

  • Seven posters from InstaDeep’ers were selected for showcasing during the week of the conference, with four receiving prizes at the end of it. The top prize, a ticket to NIPS, got awarded by Microsoft to InstaDeep’er, Alaeddine Ayadi.
  • David Silver mentioned the team’s research paper in one of the slides of his talk. The level of excitement at that moment was just unreal!
  • We were honoured to have Jeff Dean (head of Google AI) join us at InstaDeep’s booth, along with Moustapha Cisse (lead of Google AI in Africa), Andy Volk (Google Ecosystem Lead for Sub-Saharan Africa), and Soonson Kwon (ML GDE Lead).
  • Someone beat our AI! We were thrilled to welcome impressive African AI champions to our booth. We had the pleasure to have interesting discussions, where we could confirm how deeply rooted the talent is in Africa. We also have had them play a game that we prepared for the conference, where humans get to try to beat our AI, and we had a winner! We loved that Tumisho stepped by to get his well-deserved gift.
  • The team’s work was also exposed to David Silver and Nando De Freitas from DeepMind who sat down with the team to discuss it.
  • Seeing Amine, InstaDeep’s head of product, and Karim, InstaDeep’s CEO, be two of the speakers at DLIndaba was a particularly proud moment for all the team.

Conclusion

To sum up, here are the key points to remember:

  • It’s unanimously agreed upon that the team of Indaba organisers surpassed all expectations for this edition. Creating an inspirational ML community in Africa is definitely helping in democratising what AI means for this continent, preventing and curing several community issues. Those guys are taking this matter seriously and managed to craft a program that answered so many needs in an utmost manner. Kudos to you, DLIndaba team!
  • None of the above would have happened without the magical link that unites the people of InstaDeep. From those responsible for the logistics of getting 12 people from the company to the conference, the AI researchers and developers’ work on the demos shown at our booth, the designers who worked hard for the posters to be consistent and attractive, the developers who worked on our website, our Unity heroes who could have not made the demos any smoother, and finally, to those who made sure that we kept the good mood, laughter and most importantly fire going all week! If I have learned something about this last point, it’s how important people are for a start-up. I have just joined, but what I have observed and experienced in the past couple of months is self-explanatory.
  • Stellenbosch, where the conference was held, is one beautiful town, located around 45 mins away from Cape Town, South Africa. Hosting the event there was indeed meaningful from the history of the university. I can talk for hours about the beauty of this town and the South Africans’ warmth. I had the opportunity to meet with the sweetest people ever, Lydia and Cornel who took some time to show me the beauty of the town through the most fantastic hike!

For InstaDeep, the event was a small milestone and a reward for the work that the team has been doing lately. But it is also the beginning of so much more as Karim says: “Great stuff, guys! Exciting times!”

Thank you, South Africa and Indaba for this energy boost. Now, back to work.