Matt Novak unearthed an advertisement run at the dawn of the Dust Bowl that’s strikingly prescient—the desk the “farmer” is sitting at looks a lot like today’s workstations. But that’s not the only similarity. One thing Novak missed is how much that vision resembles farming today. Though farmers still have to sit at tractors’ helms, the machines are largely automated, plowing through predetermined routes fed into onboard computers and routed via GPS. And in the next decade, even that may be a thing of the past as tractors become fully autonomous.
What the the 1931 advertisement didn’t see coming was the importance of programmable computers. That’s where the 1930s’ vision of the future differs from today’s. In the past, lightening man’s burden involved reducing the amount of physical work to be done. Hence the farmer steering the tractor from a control station. But he still had to steer, a physical action performed by a human.
Today, reducing work burdens often involves removing humans from the equation entirely. That means tractors of the future will be remotely controlled—just as envisioned in the 1930s—but they won’t be guided by a man sitting behind a desk doing it in real time. Instead, tractors will be probing the fields themselves, finding the best and most efficient routes based on a slew of variables crunched by flexible, preprogrammed algorithms.