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Social Work and related professions have the potential to experience rapid change and growth in the future as technology advances and the population changes. This is especially true with artificial intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) describes a range of technologies that allow machines or computers to make decisions that are normally made by human beings.
Emotional Support Technology
Perhaps the first attempt at emotional support using a computer was the ELIZA software created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964. Through pattern matching the software was able to respond with empathy statements and open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
Modern options include XiaoIce (Zhao, et. al., 2018). As the authors describe,
The primary design goal of XiaoIce is to be an AI companion with which users form long-term, emotional connections. Being able to establish such long-term relationships with human users as an open-domain social chatbot distinguishes XiaoIce from not only early social chatbots but also other recently developed conversational AI personal assistants such as Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana.
Another example includes Replika, which recently released its source code as open-source. As these technologies get more advanced they may play a more important role in our emotional support options for people who are struggling with loneliness.
Digital psychotherapy options include online and electronic therapy options. One example is Electronic CBT for Insomnia (Espie, et. al., 2018) which was a rich-media web application that participants used to receive cognitive behavioral therapy via the internet, and Whiteside et. al. (2014) which studied the program Thrive:
Thrive is similar to programs used in successful trials of Internet-delivered CBT; the Thrive interface is interactive and its curriculum is adaptive to patient input. […] Thrive includes three CBT-based modules that are based on behavioral activation, cognitive restructuring, and social skills training techniques
While these programs are currently not utilizing much artificial intelligence, in the future we may see them adapting to the client’s progress and altering the curriculum in ways that will increase efficacy or completion rates.
As CBT programs become more researched and advance we should see more of these appearing. As Whiteside notes, these programs are significantly cheaper to deliver (using a fully automated or a paraprofessional “coach” model rather than delivering full therapy) and so may represent an increasingly common option for therapists.
Decision-making tools are potentially the most exciting use of technology and artificial intelligence. An example of where this technology has been helpful is in child protection work in England. (Pegg & McIntyre, 2018)
We may see AI being used in the future to help us integrate the hundreds of variables found in child protection assessments and files to increase our success rates and improve risk assessments. Certainly, we can’t replace humans in this incredibly careful work (just like in suicide risk assessment) but we can use these tools to augment our understanding of child protection and decrease the lag between learning things in research and applying them in practice.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to improve our lives by providing more emotional support to those who are lonely, providing digital psychotherapy and decision-support tools to improve child protection and other social work fields.
Espie, C.A., Kyle, S.D., Williams, C., Ong, J.C., Douglas, N.J., Hames, P., Brown, J.S.L. (2012) JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.jwatch.org/na47591/2018/09/28/electronic-cbt-insomnia
Pegg, D. & McIntyre, N. (2018) Child abuse algorithms: from science fiction to cost-cutting reality. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/16/child-abuse-algorithms-from-science-fiction-to-cost-cutting-reality
Weizenbaum, Joseph (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. pp. 2, 3, 6, 182, 189. ISBN 0-7167-0464-1.
Whiteside, U., Richards, J., Steinfeld, B., Simon, G., Caka, S., Tachibana, C., Stuckey, S., … Ludman, E. (2014). Online cognitive behavioral therapy for depressed primary care patients: a pilot feasibility project. The Permanente journal, 18(2), 21-7.
Zhou, L., Gao, J., Li, D. & Heung-Yeung, S. (2018) The Design and Implementation of XiaoIce, an Empathetic Social Chatbot. Journal of Human and Computer Interaction.