Social work and artificial intelligence: threat or opportunity?

The social work sector is, according to some studies, one of the least threatened by the irruption of artificial intelligence, but we cannot ignore the changes that it will inevitably introduce. For this reason, on Social Work Day, in a meeting held on the San Sebastián campus of the University of Deusto, we chose the presence of AI in the field of social work from a double perspective as a topic for reflection:

AI Contextualization and Advances

Artificial intelligence can be classified into two main categories:

  • AI systems designed to perform specific tasks, such as recommender systems, virtual assistants, and data analysis. These are the systems with which we have been living in recent years.

  • General AI, a theoretical artificial intelligence that could perform any intellectual task a human can do.

Despite the fact that such an AI has not yet been achieved, in recent months we have seen progress, particularly in what is known as large language models (or LLMs). large language models) that can make us think that we are already in a position to create this type of system.

Five years ago, we were able to clearly distinguish between a car and a plane, and today it is difficult for us to distinguish if the photo we are seeing is real or has been created by an AI, as in The case of Pope Francis and his fake feather coat.

AI and the functions of social work

Social work is a discipline that has varied functions that, a priori, can hardly be automated:

Perhaps that is why it is considered one of the professions least threatened by technological irruption. However, the discipline is no stranger to advances in AI and new technologies and there are already studies that point to the growing digitization of social services (Minguijon J. and Serrano-Martinez C., 2022). These authors analyze the role that the digitization of social services can have in caring for people and how it will impact the organization of services.

The growing volume of data generated by the different administrations and public services and the capacity to manage them are marking the electronic spin of social work.

Work is being done on the harmonization and coordination of data to generate a single social history (SHR) by digitizing documents with data, assessments and information of any kind on the situation and evolution of social care for users of social services in a territory (interventions and services received, professionals who attended them, etc.).

Given the interest of the Spanish autonomous communities (the Cohessiona programs in Andalusia; the HSU of Castilla-La Mancha or the Galician HSUE are already operating) some companies have developed services in this line.

For now, these applications are focused on the storage and coordinated management of data and not on predicting a specific need or guiding citizens towards a specific resource. Instead, they are being implemented to detect the risk of social exclusion, child abuse or the risk of suicide, or as support in the social diagnosis of responses and resource allocation. In this last area, the Barcelona City Council project stands out you help themwhich allows the user to identify the aid and social services to which he can access.

The impact of technology in the sectors of social work activity

Among the areas of action of social work, AI is breaking into care with force. There are projects and investigations that test the operation of social robots – that interact and communicate with people in a simple and pleasant way, following behaviors, patterns and social norms – for the care of the elderly or children. The application of these technologies in this sector is also a priority for European and academic institutions, as evidenced by projects such as Safeandsound by the Leiden University researcher, Eduard Fosch-Villaronga.

The bots Conversational therapy may be an option for ongoing care. In the field of gender violence, academia and companies consider this technological tool as an alternative to help women access help services or identify patterns of abuse. In addition, applications are being developed to assist women victims of violence.

Other areas of activity

Technological tools and AI applications are also tested in the migration area. In most cases, they are used for the prediction and control of migratory flows or the biometric identification of migrants.

However, not all the potential of these tools is directed to the control and prediction of people and flows: the Geomatch project puts this technology at the service of people seeking asylum or refuge.

On the other hand, a situation that until recently was attributed to the field of science fiction, the management of grief through AI in the chapter “Be right back” of the dystopian series Black Mirroris materializing in initiatives such as KenSci or Digital Shaman.

Added value or threat?

We are experiencing a rapid evolution in the development of artificial intelligence systems that increasingly impact various aspects of people’s lives. The work environment, in particular, is an area where these systems will continue to emerge and transform professions.

Although it might seem that fields like social work will not be affected as much due to their inherently human nature, artificial intelligence has the potential to become a powerful tool to improve the effectiveness of this field.

John Carmack, one of the world’s leading programmers, recently responded to a young man’s concerns about the future of computing and the growing presence of AI by advising him to focus on the value his profession brings to society rather than on the tools used in the process.

In the case of social work, the value provided by professionals is considerably high. Therefore, it is essential to recognize how artificial intelligence can enhance and complement the work of professionals, rather than replace them, thus ensuring a balanced and conscious approach in the adoption of this emerging technology.

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