Artificial intelligence (AI) was once a sci-fi fantasy of the future; now, it is a functioning and ever-increasing part of numerous industries, including immigration. We frequently hear about the benefits of artificial intelligence as a time and money saver, but have we considered the dark side of AI and its more sinister effects on this global profession?
Mr Kent O'Neil, a North Carolina-based Knowledge Management Specialist, spoke with Alchemy Recruitment about the threats and difficulties that AI poses to the Immigration sector. Kent is an expert level researcher and instructor for Newland Chase, a top global visa and immigration specialist, and has become a prolific author on the important subject of corporate immigration as a result of his work.
Alchemy began our chat with Kent by expressing our interest in the current state of artificial intelligence in the immigration industry. ‘Thus far, the primary use has been the delivery of relatively straightforward information on visa options and requirements to potential applicants…’
‘Rudimentary forms of AI used by governments and online visa providers interact with applicants in online visa applications systems and online service ordering – asking general questions of users and then using algorithms to give basic case assessment, suggest applicable visa options, and list process requirements. The recent addition of human-seeming “chatbots” is simply the next iteration of that technology.’
Some immigration experts may be relieved to learn that AI's role in the industry is presently restricted to simple activities such as automated conversations – but this will not be the case for long. Kent recognises the work of numerous companies focused on the prospects afforded by a "ripe for automation" industry. Kent explained to Alchemy:
‘I know of least a dozen online computer programs or applications that have been introduced in the last two years by private companies and law firms that purport to use AI for everything from simply answering questions about Immigration and basic case assessment to automatically completing Immigration applications and scheduling appointments with government agencies and attorneys.’
So, it appears that more AI breakthroughs for immigration purposes are on the way...
But, in the future, what are the most important activities or services that AI could perform? Kent shared his predictions with us. ‘The clearest beneficial application of AI in Immigration is in initial case assessment and information gathering. Immigration providers can use technology to collect initial information, assess options, provide general guidance, and give fee estimates.’
‘I could envision the technology progressing to the point that a sophisticated AI program could not only assess a case and select the appropriate Immigration route but even start the process of obtaining necessary supporting documents once a client agrees to proceed with a case – i.e. birth and marriage certificates… a tedious and time-consuming aspect of any Immigration process.’
‘Within large multinational companies, AI and algorithms could possibly be used to initially identify and assess potential candidates for international assignments on a myriad of factors to determine which employees within the organization might have a higher potential for success as an expat – possibly even matching certain employees to the destination and assignment.’
Immigration policies and trends are frequently discussed in political circles. Could artificial intelligence have an impact on how governments around the world see and handle immigration? ‘I recently read an article discussing how academics are already using similar AI applications to collect, synthesize, study, and predict Immigration trends in Africa in order to advise Immigration policy-makers.’ Kent explains.
This is fine when the technology works properly, but what if the data supplied by AI sources has been tainted by other forces? The ensuing change in a country's immigration policy, as well as views toward immigrants, may have an international repercussion. If an outside force is malicious (for example, political hackers), the consequences could be disastrous; hence, sufficient security is required.
‘the greatest risk in an increasing reliance on AI and purely data-driven decision-making is if we begin to remove the intangible human quality from Immigration – understanding in an empathic sense, rather than a merely logical sense,' Kent continues. 'One example of this potential negative would be, in the United States, the Trump administration’s current plans…’
'...to employ AI in "extreme vetting" to essentially data-mine social media and other online sources using automated algorithms to identify visa holders or applicants who will become "positively contributing members of society" or "add to the national interest,"' Kent continues.
‘Even assuming the information discovered online regarding a visa holder or applicant is accurate or reveals the individual’s true nature, who is to say what is a “positive contribution” or “in the national interest? We will apparently soon find out, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has already been inviting proposals from technology firms to create such a system.’
Kent's comment elucidates what will likely be many readers' first fear about AI: ‘There are obviously the inherent risks of technological breakdowns and “glitches”. On the other hand, one could argue that humans are inherently subject to their own breakdowns and glitches…’ This is correct; yet, how can we handle this, Kent? Optimally, AI should partner with, rather than replace, the human factor. The two should complement and provide a “check and balance” of one another.’
‘The speed and capacity of AI can provide greater accuracy and access, while human intelligence can still insert a necessary degree of judgment and emotion into the process…’ Kent emphasises this point. 'AI doesn’t replace human judgment, rather aids it with more information.’ Kent's point about the necessity for human judgement is well taken; could AI handle all of the cultural nuances involved in a sector as "people-focused" and international as immigration?
Many readers would believe to themselves, "Surely AI could never match a human's emotional and intellectual capacity." Humans can provide the assistance, nuance, and discretion needed to deal with cultural translation; AI, on the other hand, lacks this crucial 'human aspect'... 'Don't be so sure,' says Alchemy to those readers.
Kent aptly summarises the situation.‘It would certainly be naïve to believe that AI will never be capable of successfully reading and responding to such complex “human” nuances as culture, social norms, religion, international relations, politics, etc. Obviously, much of the technology that we take for granted today was at a point in the not-so-distant past a reality that some would have thought impossible.’
'At its most basic level, culture is a complicated set of preferences – or "yes's" and "no's" in binary computer code – in response to a wide range of events and situations. The speed and capability of current computers may theoretically synthesise such data into an intellectual "knowledge" of culture and apply it to some extent in immigration decision-making.'
Many Immigration experts may be struck by the realisation that even mankind may one day become interchangeable, thanks to Kent's extra argument. Despite this, the reader may be comforted by the notion that the technology that could bring this sci-fi concept to life is still 'lightyears' away. Even more reassuring is the fact that Kent, for one, still believes in mankind...
‘I believe there is a human factor which can never be duplicated – an appreciation, a respect, an empathy… for culture and people. Those aspects are, I believe, uniquely human, and to the extent that those are removed from the Immigration process, we all lose something incredibly valuable. AI can assist but can never replace that human factor.’
We hope Kent is correct; as an agency dedicated to providing talent services to individuals working in diverse and multi-cultural environments, including those in the Immigration sector, we believe it is critical to strike the right balance between human empathy and technological innovation in our work.