Letter from Bangkok

As Artificial Intelligence Transforms Consumer Markets, IIE’s CEO Imagines What Education Abroad Could Look Like a Decade from Now

By Allan Goodman, President and CEO, IIE

January 4, 2019

On the premise that “the future is here,” Carnegie Mellon – which is opening a new university in Thailand – convened a symposium on December 13, 2018 on Artificial Intelligence.  There were sessions on everything from how AI is improving pig farming to recycling glass bottles to health care. My topic was on how it could transform international education.  For us, the future still lies ahead.  

Since U.S. study abroad to Thailand is up by 32%, I focused on how AI could make such robust increases possible on a regular basis and envisioned how advances in automation could help us to overcome fundamental obstacles in the planning and placement proc

My talk took the form of reading the following email I imagined a professor might get from a student a decade from now.

Dear Professor,

My phone’s Internet connection has been spotty, so I’m sticking with good old-fashioned email from a desktop for now. It was surreal to experience the Wat Phra Kaew in person; it looks and sounds exactly like it did on my virtual tour last year, but even better – and lot more people crowded around to see the emerald Buddha! 
Getting around has been a bit more of a challenge without Internet on my phone. You were right; study abroad has already forced me to slow down a little, plan ahead, problem solve, and connect with all kinds of people – a very useful habit to have for someone who doesn’t have a good sense of direction! Despite some bumps along the way, this experience is shaping up to be one that I’ll cherish. Please thank my virtual advisor. Siri was the one who really got me interested in studying abroad. She filled out and submitted my passport application when I signed up for my meal plan. She also knew that I entered with enough AP credits that I could afford to be away for two full semesters.  But what really helped me to make the decision to come here was that Siri knew all about my food preferences and found just the right country where I could eat healthy. 

Next week, Siri and I will begin discussing how best to define my major. I know this is going to be challenging because many of the jobs that I will be trying to get when I graduate don’t exist now. Since Siri will be involved in determining what is going to be needed, her advice will be crucial. 

Hope you will be able to visit me here soon. Siri says your last trip to the region was 623 days ago and that so much has changed that it is time for another visit.

The audience was polite, but I suspect unconvinced. Some could not believe the statistics about how few Americans study abroad, given that most university students in Southeast Asia  aspire to do so. Others thought that this meant that American students would only study in countries that had restaurants serving their preferred foods, pointing out that this was problematic because, for example, Pad Thai in New York City in nothing like it is here in Bangkok. And the Thai farmer who was working with the CM expert in sensor technology thought his pigs would ultimately eat healthier than the average student, so the outcome would be better for his business compared to mine. 

Initially, I was worried because I dated the imagined email December 14, 2030.  Surely, our field is going to change much more rapidly than that.  But then I began thinking of the mindset shift that would have to take place to automate getting a passport, even though all the data and documents needed are already part of the admissions process.  And then there is the problem of encouraging students to actually eat healthy or convincing them that pizza is practically universal (except in Italy).  So, for now, I am sticking with the date.