ChatGPT and Social Work: Be Excited, Curious, and Skeptical

Jul 7, 2023

digitized human head

By Maren Dale

It’s free. It’s fast. It’s exciting. It’s also unsettling for most, and upsetting for more than a few, who worry it could take away their livelihood — or upend their lives.

Haven’t tried ChatGPT yet? When you do, you’ll be in the minority if you aren’t blown away. It exudes an uncanny, if not eerie, human-like cadence. The tone is smooth, friendly and reassuring. It all somehow feels familiar, like chatting with a trusted — and remarkably intelligent — old friend.

But it’s not your friend. It’s a computer algorithm. If that’s unclear, just ask ChatGPT:

“Can you explain what a computer algorithm is?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to explain what a computer algorithm is. An algorithm is a set of instructions or a procedure used to solve a problem or perform a specific task. In computer science, an algorithm is typically a step-by-step procedure that is designed to be executed by a computer program.”

Social work, welcome to — and get ready for — the new world with ChatGPT.

It’s Coming Here

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been the subject of science fiction for years. But recently, the term “AI” has entered the mainstream, along with vague warnings that:

  • It is coming.
  • It will somehow change the world.
  • We all better be prepared, for better or for worse.

For non-technicians — likely including the majority of social workers — getting a handle on what AI is and what it might possibly mean to their lives and social work practice is like trying to imagine a color they’ve never seen before or a sound they’ve never heard. 

Let’s ask ChatGPT for some help in understanding ChatGPT: 

“ChatGPT is an AI tool that produces human-like written responses to user prompts. It’s built on natural language processing, a type of AI programming that seeks to program a computer’s capacity to understand text and spoken words. This chatbot has the capacity to respond to open-ended questions and admit mistakes, challenging flawed logic.”

Engage with a Critical Lens

“For social work, what’s happening with ChatGPT is both frightening and exciting,” says Lauri Goldkind, PhD, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University and editor in chief of the Journal of Technology in Human Services Data Justice Collective. “Social workers need to engage with it with a critical lens. Be excited, curious — and skeptical.”

Goldkind, whose research interests include exploring ideas in human data interaction, data justice, nonprofit tech, small data and the intersections of human rights, suggests one of the best and easiest ways to quickly grasp what AI is capable of is to try out ChatGPT.

Read the full story in the NASW Social Work Advocates magazine