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CSWE 2020 APM: “Leading Critical Conversations: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

Category; Technology in Social Work Education and Practice

Title: Human/Robot Interaction (HRI): A New Field of Study for Social Work

Facilitators Rebecca G. Judd & Chris Jones

Overview (50 words)

This presentation explores the rapid evolution of social assistive robots, the need to establish a theoretical base for human/robot interactions and presents ways to advance social work curriculum for this emerging field in a way we can ensure safety, ethical treatment and social justice are protected for vulnerable clients. 

Objectives (3 at 50 words each)

  1. Participants will be able to discuss the trends in social assistive robot use with vulnerable populations and the emerging theoretical base of human robot interaction.
  • Participants will be able to identify and debate potential ethical dilemmas evolving from human/robot relationships in the use of social assistive robots with vulnerable populations and professional ethical guidelines for social work practice.  
  • Participants will be able to identify ways social workers can advocate for social justice in the use of social assistive robots with vulnerable populations.

Proposal Text (750 words)

While the use of social assistive robots with populations served by social workers is beginning to expand and expected to gain momentum through the year 2025 (Fortunati, Esposito & Lugano, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2014) especially in the fields of healthcare and education, it is also predicted that the overall employment of social workers will grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026 -specifically in areas of healthcare and social services (Occupational Outlook Handbook).

Therefore the two are on a collision course and social assistive robots will become a major agenda item for the social work profession

Just as social workers are trained with knowledge and skills to improve the lives of vulnerable individuals, social robots are being designed to improve the overall human condition specifically targeting individuals with physical and/or mental challenges. Promising areas of interest and investment to alleviate some challenges faced by vulnerable populations include assistive technology ranging from physical and mobility assistance robots (Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012); to social and communication robots (Pearce et al. 2012; Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012; Wood et al 2013) monitoring and ambient technologies (Cruz et al, 2018; Pearce et al 2012; Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012; van Wynsberghe & Li, 2019) telehealth applications (Pearce et al 2012; van Wynsberghe & Li, 2019) and working with children in classrooms (Sharkey, 2016; Temming 2019).

A core value of social work is recognizing the central importance of human relationships (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2018) therefore as there are changing dynamics evolving with the introduction of social assistive robots into the human existence ethical concerns begin to surface. Specific areas of concern within the NASW Code of Ethics (2018) are the clients’ rights to make informed decisions (1.03); client’s abilities to understand the potential benefits, risks and limitations of technological services (1.03g) and the inherent right to act as autonomous agents in their lives are all areas of potential ethical dilemmas when introducing social assistive robots into the lives of vulnerable individuals (Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012; Sharkey 2014).  In addition, client’s rights to privacy and confidentiality, a core ethical code in the social work profession is a heightened area of concern for the emerging field of robotics (Sorell & Draper, 2017)).

Even when robots are found to be beneficial and able to improve outcomes for vulnerable individuals, if human service professionals have not been brought into development and implementation processes barriers can be encountered ranging from obtaining financial resources to access and provide the technology, promoting its use, intervening for positive outcomes and in some instances sabotaging its implementation due to lack of knowledge or fear of the unknown (Gessl, Schlögl & Mevenkamp, 2019: Savela, Turja & Oksanen, 2017).  

While development and implementation of this technology currently remains focused in the fields of engineering, artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience, there are numerous calls for collaboration to include social workers, other social service professionals, sociologists and psychologists to provide input and expertise in being human as this is vital to ensure the optimum progression of these non-human entities (Fortunati, Esposito & Lugano, 2015; Luxton, 2014; Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012). Yet, social work educators and the overall profession have not yet entered into the conversation to address theoretically or experientially what will inevitably become a collaborative partnership between robot, worker and client.

Because it is well established that robots are coming and the Social Work Professional will be impacted both directly and indirectly as these entities are made available in client areas it is now necessary to begin infusing the concepts and knowledge base of social assistive robots into social work curriculum.

Students who began their academic careers in higher education in 2018, will be early in their professional lives in 2025, when it is expected this technology will be widespread.  Integrating this rapidly emerging field of HRI into the social work milieu can only be accomplished through learning about the history and concepts of robots – specifically assistive, social and companion robots – and accepting them as a part of daily life.

So, let’s start the conversation.

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