David Autor was one of my PhD advisors, so I try to keep up with his work. Yesterday, Paul Krugman threw the spotlight on David, highlighting his important, insightful work on how computers are best suited to take over routine jobs, which reminds me of an experience I had a couple months ago.

While growing up on the farm, I suspected that most of the menial jobs I did could be automated. Maybe not the hard labor jobs like moving pipe (sure, you could install a center pivot, but how is that going to build your sons’ character?), but a lot of the tractor work made me feel superflous.

When I was 18 I drove a John Deere 4850 (similar to the one in this video) pulling a (two-row!) potato harvester. Then I left the farm, went to college and haven’t been back during harvest until this past year. Since my brother still farms there, I tracked him down and spent a bit of time in his tractor, pulling the harvester. Times have changed. Yield monitors and GPS units flashed and beeped. Other electronic hardware made it look more like the space shuttle cockpit than the old 4850 I once used to pull the harvester.

So far all of that technology seems to complement the human labor, but if the trend that Krugman highlights continues, it won’t be long before that harvester is driving itself.

Potato harvest in action (not my brother, just some random video from YouTube):