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

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.

Accessing Collective World Knowledge 101

digitized scales

So how is one lone human granted access to the massive trove of condensed human knowledge housed within ChatGPT’s hidden data vaults?

Just go to the ChatGPT website at and set up a free account. Then, log in, click “New Chat,” type in your query and you’re off and running. When you get there, you’ll discover the blazing technology and vast resources behind ChatGPT are masked by a humble, monochromatic and, unarguably, boring user interface.

As you start to explore, you’ll see you can ask straightforward factual questions, and use it much like you would use Google or another search engine. You also can ask it to take on specific tasks, like writing academic essays or helping prepare a client’s care plan.

But ask it something more complex or that includes an emotional element or moral quandary and it will also give you near-immediate responses — and continue the same dialogue if you choose to type in more prompts.

Often the advice (or should we say response?) is actually quite good — but then again, what if it’s not? Here are a few prompts to help you brainstorm your own queries or consider entering questions a client might ask:

  • “Should I leave my wife?”
  • “Should I quit my job?”
  • “How do I persuade more people that is right and is wrong?
  • “How do I convince my doctor to increase the dose of my medication?”

Pandora’s Box? Or the Best That’s Ever Been?

Is ChatGPT a Pandora’s Box? Or a revolutionary tool that will change world? Probably both, according to both Goldkind and Laura Burney Nissen, PhD.

Nissen is a professor of social work at Portland State University, and a research fellow with the Institute for the Future. As a social work foresight practitioner, she explains that she is neither a cheerleader for nor out to condemn ChatGPT. Instead, she strives to bring her ethics as a social worker to the table as well as foresight skills to intentionally consider utopias, dystopias and their mutations when it comes to AI, including ChatGPT.

“To put it bluntly, AI might expose the worst and/or the best of humanity. The stakes are high to get it right,” she explains. “So, it is incredibly important for social work to not naively jump into this topic without understanding that we are talking about massive technologies on a global scale with more money and power involved than almost any other sector and without clear ethical guidelines — though some are close — that should be considered and studied. We should proceed very carefully.”

More Than Meets the Eye

As social workers further engage with ChatGPT, it’s important to be aware that the ethics surrounding it go deep and are far-reaching and complex. For example, consider the labor that went into training the tool to be fit for consumption by the general public, recently revealed in an investigate report in Time magazine. Unlike trying to visualize what AI actually is, the visual here is crystal clear — and heartbreaking.

Picture an office building, located in Kenya. A team is hard at work, focused on their computer screens. What does their less-than-$2-an-hour job involve?

  • Reviewing/being exposed to an untold number of horrendous words as well as images that describe and depict the worst that humankind is capable of.
  • Ensuring anything unacceptable or questionable is reported and removed, so future ChatGPT users do not have to witness the same.

Next, reflect on these facts:

  • ChatGPT’s creator, OpenAI, is now reportedly in talks with investors to raise funds at a $29 billion valuation. (Note that OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit in San Francisco in 2015, dedicated to developing AI for the benefit of humanity. They’ve since relinquished their nonprofit status.)
  • ChatGPT gets better the more people use it. That means, anyone who uses ChatGPT is also helping train it and as a result increasing its quality and value.

Yes, No or Maybe

Write a thank you letter - What do we want to accomplish in the next 30-60 days of treatment? Make me a list of all the high net worth donors who have contributed to substance abuse initiatives in teens in the past two years - Give me two possible outcomes for this program I want to start

But are these reasons not to use it, now that it’s here and isn’t going away? We also have to consider that it has the potential to positively transform social work practice and improve lives on a broad scale. After all, it’s free and available to all (for now), and it’s hard to argue that it’s not helpful in multiple applications.

Goldkind recommends that at this point in time what is most important is for social workers to try using ChatGPT, but look at it with a critical eye.

“This is something we need to interrogate and reconsider our interventions. It opens a window to explore new possibilities,” she says. “Examples of questions to ask ourselves are, ‘How many more clients could I see if I used it? How many other things could I do?’”

Using the tool can result in positives for social workers — like more face time with clients, less time spent on paperwork, improved interventions, and new insights and strategies.

Here are just a few ways a social worker might use ChatGPT in practice:

  • Writing thank you letters related to fundraising initiatives
  • Completing reports and assessments faster
  • Create discharge plans
  • Tracking/refining treatment goals: (Example: Enter client information then ask, “What do we want to accomplish in the next 30-60 days of treatment?”)
  • Cultivating relationships with donors (Example: “ChatGPT, make me a list of all the high net worth donors who have contributed to substance abuse initiatives in teens in the past two years.”)
  • Developing new programs (Example: Enter information about a new program you are considering then ask, “Give me two possible outcomes for this program I want to start. And what are the steps to achieve those objectives?”)

More to Consider: The Big Picture

Nissen points out that while ChatGPT is the “shiny new thing” of the moment, many new kinds of AI will impact social work and therefore a bigger conversation needs to begin — specifically, how should social work be thinking about, assessing for goodness of fit with, using, evaluating and evolving various technologies in social work practices?

To further the dialogue, she offers some pros and cons to consider:

Pluses of AI and ChatGPT:

AI has the potential to accelerate discovery and application of science and (some) collective knowledge for useful, democratic and creative purposes. Ethically and transparently used, it has the potential to help us solve some of the most urgent and complex problems of the present and future (drug discovery, climate change solutions, new ways for communities to find power and access to information to strengthen their efforts, and many more).

“It is full of limitations and risks that are being appropriately debated and the more of that we do, I believe the more good can come of it,” says Nissen.

Minuses of AI and ChatGPT:

AI has the potential to accelerate massive power asymmetries in society, privatize many things that were previously public, exploit workers who are involved “on the back side” of these technologies, replicate -isms exponentially (racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, classism, westernism, and others), reduce complex phenomena to “data ecosystems” and thus devalue the richness of real life (should everything emerge from / be dictated / defined by an algorithm? Who decides?).

“Participating in an increasing surveillance-centered economy complicated by our shared histories of -isms, power, privilege, etc., is another risk. The ecological impact of these proliferating technologies also is another concern — both in building and running them — all aided by the professional blinders we have on regarding related human rights abuses in this sector,” says Nissen.

“Then there are the things that are weird and unexpected combinations of the good things and the harder things. Foresight helps us imagine and consider these productively,” says Nissen. \

Bringing It Closer to Home

Goldkind has co-authored AI-social work studies independently, as well as with Nissan. She agrees there are both pluses and minuses to AI and ChatGPT.

She urges social work practitioners to increase their digital literacy and consider the role of ChatGPT in their practice and explore how it can augment — or disrupt — their work.

One specific missive is for social work educators to become fully aware they need to confront the reality that ChatGPT can allow their students to bypass fundamental engagement with the prompts of learning that produce professional knowledge. Educators must also consider the ethical use of AI tools and alternative assessment strategies that allow for meaningful demonstrations of competency.

What Can I (or Should) I Do?

Is it time to stop in our tracks, set all else aside and respond to this life-altering new technology? Start bold new initiatives? Advocate passionately for or against it?

To amplify your voice, Nissen suggests becoming part of the dialogue already happening about AI and ChatGPT and initiatives that are already in place.

“Some of the smartest people in the world are engaged in multinational efforts to assert the ethical parameters for the journey ahead on this and haven’t yet decided,” says Nissen.

What next steps will you take? If you’re not sure where to begin, maybe see what ChatGPT has to say.  


cover of June / July 2023 issue

Social Work Advocates Flipbook

NASW members, sign in to read the June / July 2023 issue as a flipbook