As AI and cognitive automation technologies have been developing with increasing speed, it comes at no surprise that we wonder about AI and robotics’ impact on the lives of regular people and the quality of work we’re going to come out with.
Are robots going to help us or take our jobs? Will artificial intelligence make it even easier? How is automation really affecting the global workforce and economy? Will automation free our time for leisurely pursuits? Or will we get even busier? And if we’re so good at creating technology that does the work for us, will society create new support mechanisms to address that?
What exactly is RPA?
Robotic process automation (RPA), also known as software robotics, is the use of a software helping to streamline and automate business processes at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions. It works as a targeted pain killer — it can be applied to specific tasks and processes so there is no need to change current IT systems as opposite to BPM systems. Basic RPA works by mimicking the activities that people currently undertake, using existing core systems, legacy applications, accessing websites, pulling requests, merging data, manipulating spreadsheets, documents and email to complete tasks. Some RPA software involves mapping out current or new processes and spotting which processes are viable for automation. It is often the case that business operations realise that some of the current processes could be optimised or can be completely removed. Once it’s done, RPA robots are being linked to existing applications, and then scheduled to run whenever required.
The individual elements of RPA software are nothing new. However, it’s the combination of all the features into a single, mature package that works with existing systems which, in many cases, creates a compelling alternative to core-platform integration or replacement. And not only can RPA reduce manual operations costs by 25% to 40% or more, it does this while improving service and compliance, and typically provides tangible return almost immediately. Because the software replicates human activity, it can be thought of as a set of software robots, forming a virtual workforce available 24 hours per day, with full audit and 100% accuracy. In fact, the concept of a virtual, trainable workforce has proven to be a useful perspective from which to approach software robotics, as it emphasises business rather than IT control, and provides for rapid adoption through existing compliance and risk management frameworks.
What about cognitive robotics?
In addition to “standard robotics,” there is also an increasing interest in “intelligent robotics” — the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence approaches to allow automated processes to self-adjust and improve, and to tackle subjective decisions as well as following simple rules. This extension offers both improved, data-driven decision-making at speed, and increases the scope of manual work that can be automated. We see two different approaches to intelligent robotics. First, use case specific solutions (such as intelligent document scanning for handling paper, or speechrecognition systems for call centers), and second, the combination of analytics and machine learning platforms with RPA software. In the latter case, the analytics platform is the “brain,” with the RPA software providing the “body” of the robot, able to collect the information required and take the resulting action.
The technical challenges
While the progress being made in these projects is very impressive, they expose some interesting challenges. Designing a statistical optimisation or machine-learning approach to get the best outcome is relatively straightforward. While natural language interfaces and sentiment analysis can understand human emotion, the ability to naturally converse and empathise with perfect accuracy is still a work in progress. But there are clearly areas where a degree of learning or “cognitive” technology already offers a significant advantage, such as processing of paper documentation, data sorting and merging, understanding speech, detection of fraud, and so on.
The biological and social challenges
According to Michael Chui, partner at McKinsey Global Institute, there’s a huge need to increase productivity around the world, the U.S. included, simply because of aging. Half of our economic growth has come from more people working: women in the workforce, growing population. That source is shrinking more and more. Therefore, we badly need to increase the economic output. One way to do that is to have the robots, the A.I., do the work that doesn’t require complex cognition. Investing in AI and RPA give the biggest chances to increase our productivity. And not only do we need robots working, but people too. So we need to make sure there’s enough work for them to do.
In the past, people were gaining profession over the years under the supervision of other skilled craftsmen. People found their work meaningful as they could see tangible results of their work. However, skilled work involving varied tasks was time consuming and productivity was low and limited to man hours.
Then came the machines.
The assembly line which officially kicked off in 1913 by Henry Ford has long been considered one of the greatest innovations of the 20th century. It has shaped the industrial world so strongly that businesses that did not adopt the practice soon became extinct, and it was one of the key factors that helped integrate the automobile into American society. Soon other industries followed.
Complex jobs were broken up into component tasks, each simple to perform. Each worker had to perform just one task, again and again, with chains of workers performing the complete sequence of tasks doing job. Human workers were in effect forced to become like robots, doing boring, repetitive tasks. It killed people’s creativity.
Bringing creativity back to the table
Today robotics are reaching a completely new level of sophistication. Companies like Rethink Robotics are striving to develop adaptive manufacturing robots that can work next to humans. These robots would help to improve efficiency and increase productivity.
The same should follow with use of non-physical, software robots. Most of us don’t have the quiet time that allows us to be innovative and creative. We’re constantly behind our schedule, ticking never ending to-do list of tasks which we would gladly “delegate” to robots. Social media and other distractions effectively keep us away from distributing our time towards learning and creating new opportunities.
How to get involved
With RPA, all of the low-volume, bespoke tasks that never warranted attention suddenly become viable candidates for elimination through automation.
Robots are best thought of as a complementary workforce working hand-in-hand with people to help them improve their performance and focus their time on other, higher priority tasks, strategy and innovation. Robots can enable people to work better, smarter and more creatively, expanding the opportunities for new business.
Untrite helps companies to derive business value from RPA. We work with you to:
- Understand work processes and identify those that can be optimised by simplification or automated completely to deliver business results
- Select processes that are best for the selected processes in your particular environment
- Automate the selected processes not only to deliver desired results but also to meet security issues
- Train and support your staff to maintain the RPA solution to continue producing business outcomes