Dr Gerhard Timm, Managing Director of the Federal Association of Non-statutory Welfare (BAGFW), explains the impacts of digitalisation on social work, why the dialogue between politics and civil society must be reinforced and how to ensure the development of non-discriminatory AI applications.
“Good AI must not lead to marginalisation”
Policy Lab: Dr Timm, the Federal Association of Non-statutory Welfare brings together the umbrella organisations in the field of non-statutory welfare. Together, they develop initiatives and activities designed to safeguard and enhance social work. What does that mean in concrete terms?
Dr Timm: Our area of concern is the further development and proper functioning of our welfare state. That means establishing positions and opinions on every area of social work, then making the results available to decision makers in the Federal Government. One concrete example of our work is a project for digitalising non-statutory welfare. This involves testing digital approaches in order to adapt the work structures and processes of non-statutory welfare to the possibilities of the technology available today. Our aim, for one thing, is to reach new target groups while reaching old ones in new ways. Aside from this, one particularly interesting format is the social monitoring process that takes place twice a year in conjunction with the Federal Government. Here, we discuss unintended side effects of social legislation so that laws or ordinances can be improved in case of doubt. We are currently getting ready for the coalition agreement negotiations, in the course of which we will set out our vision of a socially engaged Germany for tomorrow and what, in our view, will be needed in order to realise this over the coming four years.
Policy Lab: Do you consider any one social issue particularly urgent at the moment?
Dr Timm: Naturally, against the backdrop of the events in Afghanistan, the issue of flight and migration is very high on the agenda. Care also remains an important topic, especially in the light of the ongoing demographic change. And the demand for affordable housing is becoming ever more prominent.
Policy Lab: How is digitalisation changing social work? Can it improve these urgent issues?
Dr Timm: Digitalisation creates opportunities for making our existing offers more user-friendly. Let’s stick with the example of care. Here, the Federal Government, in collaboration with gematik GmbH, is currently developing a project to integrate care into the telematics infrastructure. Telematics means networking various IT systems and the opportunity to interlink data from a variety of sources securely. That is to say, the telematics infrastructure connects everyone actively involved in healthcare, thereby enabling effective and secure communication between care services, doctorsand hospitals: a clear improvement to the status quo.
The benefits of digitalisation were particularly apparent during the pandemic, when face-to-face consultations were augmented or replaced with digital offers. This helped us stay in touch with our target groups. It was a tremendous opportunity and we made good use of it. We found to some extent, even disregarding the pandemic, that we were able to reach some people better online than via traditional methods in counselling centres. One example of this was online consultation for suicidal young people. But of course, it’s also important to acknowledge the challenges posed by digitalisation. We need to structure the change in a way, which ensures that digitalisation processes do not further exacerbate existing inequalities. There should be no further marginalisation of societal groups whose respective situations in respect of resources or skills prevent them from accessing digital offers.
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Policy Lab: In your view, what potential does artificial intelligence (AI) offer for enhancing social work and what challenges does it present?
Dr Timm: First off, we should start by clarifying precisely what we mean by AI. This is in fact a matter of considerable contention, both among scientists and in political discourse. Does AI mean digitalisation plus machine learning plus algorithms plus X (whatever else might later be added)? On the other hand, it is important to know whether we are only contemplating the next two or three years, or whether we are talking about 2050.
Policy Lab: Both options – the outlook for the next few years and a projection for 2050 – are interesting.
Dr Timm: With regards to the next few years, I am optimistic – in particular, I can see a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities. I believe AI has the capacity to improve many routines in ways that will benefit employees, carers and those receiving care. When we take a look further ahead, we should proceed with care. I believe the potential of AI is truly gigantic. We’re going to find ourselves dealing with technological and social innovations that are revolutionary in scope. In particular, the linking of information technology and biotechnology is going to have a massive influence on all our lives. It’s going to change social work too. That said, I believe that creativity and tangible attentiveness, both defining attributes of social work, will be harder to replace or quite possibly irreplaceable. However, we are already seeing that AI-supported psychotherapy can be highly successful – even more so than traditional treatments provided by human therapists. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, science writer Yuval Noah Harari, for whom I have the utmost respect, speaks of the emergence of a large class that he calls “the useless class” – people who are simply no longer needed because their work has been replaced by AI. Such a development is clearly very alarming because becoming useless to society is the worst thing that can happen to a human being. That’s why I think we need an ethical code for algorithms. For me, this is a key element of AI providing benefits for the common good, as propagated by the Civic Innovation Platform.
Policy Lab: What benefits do you expect from the collaboration with the Civic Innovation Platform and what capabilities can you yourself contribute to the platform?
Dr Timm: The hope is that we can create new synergies that will allow social work to benefit more effectively from the digital community. We need to become even better at combining different expertise with our own capabilities. As regards what we at the BAGFW can contribute: thanks to our practical experience, we are in a position to identify the concrete needs associated with societal issues, and this in turn allows us to formulate the correct questions on how to find digital solutions. We bring those competencies to the table.
Policy Lab: What requirements do you expect a good AI application to meet? Have you developed any corresponding criteria in the Federal Association of Non-statutory Welfare?
Dr Timm: To date, we have not developed any concrete criteria. Orientation towards the common good is one useful guiding principle, naturally. Good AI must not lead to marginalisation. That is why it is important for information scientists to work in multidisciplinary teams and to develop an awareness – for example – for the need for non-discriminatory programming. Another challenge is dealing with the large amounts of sensitive data that make a functioning AI possible in the first place. The development of the necessary framework for bringing together this data is still in the early stages.
Policy Lab: In the future, what digital skills will people need in their everyday lives and how can people with special needs be taken into consideration?
Dr Timm: First, the ability to use digital end devices is a very important skill. There are many different target groups to be considered, all with varying requirements: senior citizens, blind people, the brain-damaged, people with language barriers – to name just a few examples. People also need to exercise their critical faculties when dealing with their own personal data. They need to be able to recognise relevant information and differentiate it from fake news. That’s a matter of education, and the trick is to get into the habit early on. Here we have created training offers for employees as well as for young people, addressing topics such as social media.
Policy Lab: What expectations do you have from the second round of the AI is what we make it! idea contest?
Dr Timm: The content of the first round was quite broad. Now I’m looking for greater involvement in respect of non-statutory welfare. That is something we are aiming to promote: not only does it bring together a variety of expertise but our work also benefits from it. We’re also very much hoping for a more vigorous dialogue between politics and civil society concerning the upcoming developments and their ramifications. Here, the Civic Innovation Platform could be used as a forum. We need to advance the public debate while keeping in view the overarching issue: orientation towards the common good.
Policy Lab: Casting a creative glance towards the future, what AI application would you personally like to see?
Dr Timm: I would like to see our application processes become more objective. By this, I mean using AI to improve them both from a technical standpoint and regarding all forms of discrimination. It is said that we reach a decision on applications within the first three seconds, based on a lifetime’s worth of prejudices. That's something I’d love to change. There are already initial promising approaches for such applications and they are well worth pursuing.
Policy Lab: Many thanks for talking to us, Dr Timm.
Please note: this conversation took place in early September before the Bundestag election.