Can a robot be an expert? The social meaning of skill and its expression through the prospect of autonomous AgTech

Agriculture and Human Values 40 (2):501-517 (2022)
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Artificial intelligence and robotics have increasingly been adopted in agri-food systems—from milking robots to self-driving tractors. New projects extend these technologies in an effort to automate skilled work that has previously been considered dependent on human expertise due to its complexity. In this paper, we draw on qualitative research carried out with farm managers on apple orchards and winegrape vineyards in Aotearoa New Zealand. We investigate how agricultural managers’ perceptions of future agricultural automation relates to their approach to expertise, or the degree to which they think specialised skills and knowledge are required to perform agricultural work on their orchards and vineyards. Our research generates two insights: the perceived potential for work to be automated is related to the degree to which it is seen to require technical or embodied expertise, with technical expertise being more automatable; and, while embodied expertise is perceived to be more difficult to automate, it is sometimes attributed more exclusively to those in positions of power, such that embodied expertise can be highly valued while the majority of embodied work is viewed as non-expert and thus automatable. Our analysis illustrates that a robot can be an expert when expertise is technical. It also shows variability in the conceptualization of skilled or unskilled work, and that those conceptualizations can set the stage for the future effects of new technologies. This generates new insights into the conditions under which automation might reproduce existing inequalities in agriculture, and also raises new questions about responsibility in the context of automation.



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