The Twitter feed @HumanVSMachine is a haunting collection of images and videos showing the automation of work around the world. The videos place footage of people doing a job side-by-side with footage of robots doing the same thing. The overall impression is of human obsolescence—at least in certain professions.
Philippe Chabot, a French Canadian from Montreal, is the force behind @HumanVSMachine, and he knows something about being replaced. He used to be a graphic artist, first in the video industry and then as a freelancer. At one point, he had plenty of contracts and plenty of work. But increasing competition for fewer assignments made this an unstable profession. Eventually, Chabot was bidding against people who would churn out a logo for $5, and he found that game studios were increasingly outsourcing their artwork. Software and chatbots were created that could automatically design avatars and websites. So Chabot left the field and now works in a kitchen.
He’s not the only one of his friends and family whose work has been outsourced, whether to people in other countries or to non-humans.
Chabot said to, “There seems to be stigma about this happening to someone, as if it is shameful. I think if more people would speak about this reality, we’d already be having a nicer transition with all these changes happening.”
The biggest change he’s referring to is the technologically driven separation of people from traditional jobs. Experts predict that, by 2020, over 5 million jobs will be lost due to robotics, AI, 3D printing, and other technologies—largely in office and administrative work. But other sectors will be affected as well. After all, robots can deliver pizza, mop floors, make soup, work an assembly line, check in hotel guests, carry cargo onto battlefields, and perform surgery. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them one day displacing sex workers.
But Chabot doesn’t intend his @HumanVSMachine account to feel dystopian. “I tried to make HumanVSMachine in a neutral way,” he said. “Just so the argument ‘it will happen in 50 years’ can’t be made.”
That doesn’t mean Chabot is ideology-free. He wasn’t an activist until he lost his job (“I had to live the experience,” he said). That’s when he encountered the basic-income movement. This was hugely eye-opening for him, and he threw himself into activism. He created @BaseIncomeQuote and @BasicIncomeIMG with the aim of creating a hub of text and images advocating for a guaranteed minimum income. He explained his preoccupation with this cause: “To me, basic income is a great enabler, but also a tool to smooth the transition [as] society is moving beyond jobs as we know it.”
He refutes the idea that providing a minimum income would create laziness and dependency.
“From my perspective, if I would have guaranteed minimum income, I would continue making art,” he said. “I used to spend all my time making video games, but it does not pay rent (unless you are successful, which is becoming harder and harder)… I realized so many people were experiencing the same situation as me while doing other meaningful work for them. Say your parent becomes ill… and you decide to take care of them. You might end up with debt or loans simply because that work is not considered as ‘work.’”
Ultimately, he believes, the safety net of a basic income would allow people to continue doing productive work that isn’t market valued.
This basic income advocacy led to @HumanVSMachine, which Chabot started in October. He finds videos at places like IEEE Spectrum and stitches them together using Adobe Premiere Pro. So far, most of the interest in @HumanVSMachine has been from people in the IT sector, who are already more aware than many of the pace of automation.
Chabot’s fixation with the automation of employment has led him to believe that all industries are at risk of automation. A favorite example: “The big one that will open a lot of people’s eyes is the truck industry. Five million jobs in North America, even more if you count the jobs that survive on truck drivers. Motels near highways, cafes, etc. It is a very sexy proposition for business owners to automate trucks as they save 75 percent costs on wages, and their truck can drive 24/7.”
@HumanVSMachine is an interesting snapshot of the current moment in social media-based activism, where a Twitter account could be considered either pointless slacktivism or useful hashtag activism.
As for Chabot, he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. As he said of his Twitter-based crusade, “I’m really amateur, but think it’s fine. Anyone can help bring a better world for all. One thing, it does bring meaning to my life, and it might be the reason I’m doing all of this.”