Why AI needs more social workers, with Columbia University’s Desmond Patton
Sometimes it does seem the entire tech industry could use someone to talk to, like a good therapist or social worker. That might sound like an insult, but I mean it mostly earnestly: I am a chaplain who has spent 15 years talking with students, faculty, and other leaders at Harvard (and more recently MIT as well), mostly nonreligious and skeptical people like me, about their struggles to figure out what it means to build a meaningful career and a satisfying life, in a world full of insecurity, instability, and divisiveness of every kind.
In related news, I recently took a year-long paid sabbatical from my work at Harvard and MIT, to spend 2019-20 investigating the ethics of technology and business (including by writing this column at TechCrunch). I doubt it will shock you to hear I’ve encountered a lot of amoral behavior in tech, thus far.
A less expected and perhaps more profound finding, however, has been what the introspective founder Prayag Narula of LeadGenius tweeted at me recently: that behind the hubris and Machiavellianism one can find in tech companies is a constant struggle with anxiety and an abiding feeling of inadequacy among tech leaders.
In tech, just like at places like Harvard and MIT, people are stressed. They’re hurting, whether or not they even realize it.
So when Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently posted an article whose headline began, “Why AI Needs Social Workers…”… it caught my eye.
The article, it turns out, was written by Columbia University Professor Desmond Patton. Patton is a Public Interest Technologist and pioneer in the use of social media and Artificial Intelligence in the study of gun violence. The founding Director of Columbia’s SAFElab and Associate Professor of Social Work, Sociology and Data Science at Columbia University.
A trained social worker and decorated social work scholar, Patton has also become a big name in AI circles in recent years. If Big Tech ever decided to hire a Chief Social Work Officer, he’d be a sought-after candidate.
It further turns out that Patton’s expertise