The robots are coming! Be warned, they will automate our jobs, and they will take work away from us. 

But wait, if the office of the future is full of robots doing our jobs, who will feed Santa Paws the office dog?  Will Friday night drinks still be fun, will the robots still break into the boss’ liquor cabinet?  Will they finally be able to do the tasks that have always been beyond human intellect, such as unjamming the photocopier and cleaning the office microwave after heating a bowl of unfeasibly pungent tuna?

Robotic Process Automation is the latest disruptive technology that is hyped to change the way we work.  When they hear robotic automation most people will picture offices full of humanoid shaped robots tirelessly doing the jobs that we take so much pride in today.  Floors full of robot lawyers coldly processing cases, robot bankers foreclosing on loans, robot advertising execs creating perfect ads based on mass surveillance of human behavior.

Of course, like most things, reality and imagination are miles apart.  Sorry to disappoint, but Robotic Process Automation doesn’t even use physical robots, no shiny robots sitting at desks, no R2D2s, no Wall-e, and no C3PO talking to each other.  Just a bit of software running on a PC, usually with a human sitting in front of it.

If it’s not that, what is Robotic Process Automation? Wikipedia tells us “Robotic process automation (or RPA) is an emerging form of business process automation technology based on the notion of metaphorical software robots or artificial intelligence (AI) workers.” Meta-what?  Let’s try that again, in plain English.

The simplest explanation is to forget the word robot and just read “process automation”.  Sounds far less exciting doesn’t it?  Automating a business process, its not exactly futuristic technological breakthrough stuff is it?  Just regular old IT helping you run a process a bit faster.

Robotic Process Automation does boring repetitive tasks so people don’t have to,
and it doesn’t complain about it.

That’s a key point, what robotic process automation does is really boring, what it means is a lot more interesting.

Let’s have an example to help explain it:

Imagine you work in a bank, your job is to process loan applications.  The first step is to enter information into a loan system, the information comes from three other systems and the internet, which means you pretty much copy and paste stuff between systems.  It takes you about ten minutes per loan to go into each system, find the info, copy it and paste it into the loan system.  You do pretty much the same thing every time.  Its repetitive, slow, and dead boring.  Most importantly, it takes up valuable time you should be spending reviewing the loan application.

If we apply some Robotic Process Automation to that example here’s what life looks like now:

A loan application comes in, you click a button and a robotic process gathers all the relevant info from the systems and the internet, pastes it into the loan system for you, and it all happens in less than a minute.  You then get nine extra minutes to properly review the loan application, this results in a much better lending portfolio for the bank, and a much faster service for the customer.

As you can see, what it does is boring, what it means is important.  Robotic process automation takes boring repetitive tasks off people, so people can do far more intelligent and meaningful work.

The Robots are taking my job!

Well if you love the boring, repetitive and meaningless part of your job, yes, they are.  If you are like the rest of the world and want to do interesting and meaningful work, then not so much.  Think if it as a robotic butler that takes care of the boring stuff and leaves you free to use your brain.

Are the robots intelligent?

Well that depends what you mean by intelligent, they certainly aren’t going to take over the world, but if they ran for President of the United States they might score higher than the incumbent.  No, the robots aren’t intelligent in the sense that we think of AI and robots from science fiction, but they are smart enough to know what they are looking for, and to adapt to changes when the unexpected happens.

Isn’t this just macros and screen-scraping?

If you’re old enough to love Stranger Things because it’s so familiar, or if you know what MS-DOS is, then you might be thinking this is just a bad fashion revival of some 1990’s technology. You could well be fooled into thinking it’s the pastel-leg-warmers of technology.  Back in the distant past there were simple macros that could copy and paste info from one screen to another, they never worked that well, and we killed that idea off decades ago.

So how is robotic automation any different to what we had 20 years ago?  I’d compare it to cruise control versus self-driving cars.  They can both drive a car in a straight line down a highway, but if something gets in the way or you come to a bend in the road the cruise control isn’t going to deal with it particularly well.  A self-driving car has enough smarts to see that something has changed and react accordingly, cruise control will just carry on doing what it was told regardless, and plough straight on through that bend doing 60 mph.

Macros were cruise control, they did exactly what they were told, copied text from field #8 and pasted it into field #27.  But what if there was no text in field #8?  What if that field moved, or was renamed?  What if the destination field wasn’t there, or the text was too long to fit?  At best it would crash, at worst it would carry on regardless, making you think it had worked when in fact you were getting a garbage result.  It was a bit like Russian Roulette, you never quite knew if the outcome was safe or about to kill your business process.

Robotic automation is somewhat intelligent.  Not in a Terminator 2 kind of way, but smart enough to cope with simple variations and work around them.  This makes it far more resilient, flexible, and safe to use.  Robotic automation can be told not just to copy text from field #8, but instead to look for a first name, a phone number, or credit card details and gather those.

So, no its not just macros and screen scraping, but that is a useful way of describing what it does.

RPA versus RDA?

You’ll see robotic automation called RPA and sometimes RDA, these are both just variants of robotic automation.

Robotic Desktop Automation (RDA)

This is what I described above in the macro and screen scraping comparison.  It’s using robotic automation to do stuff on your PC that you would normally do (that’s why it’s called desktop automation).  Like logging into a system, finding a client file, updating their application status, and copying their address over to the dispatch system.

Robotic Desktop Automation: clicking buttons and pushing keys for you, to make your job easier and less boring.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

RPA is about doing stuff in the background that joins up a business process.  Say what?  Let me explain…

There are so many faux-digital processes out there from organizations that are trying to appear digital but have only made half the journey.  You know the ones, like when you fill in a form online to order a new unicorn onesie (for your kids of course), which then sends an email to someone, who then prints it out and types the order into a system.  You then get sent four pink unicycles because they made a typo.

Where RPA comes in is it can take that form-generated email and correctly transfer the information to the order system without any typos, without any human input at all.  Even better, it can add value to the information as it does it, for example it can check the information is correct before it puts into the order system.  Maybe when you ordered it you made a typo in your address, the RPA robot could check your address against your previous orders and spot the mistake.  That’s not something we could expect from a poor human who’s job it is to type in hundreds of orders each day.

Robotic Process Automation: doing boring process stuff without human input.

Is the Future Robotic?

Does this make Robotic Automation the perfect solution for all boring tasks?  Rather than robotic automation being the perfect solution, it is very much an imperfect solution.   There are much better ways to deal with boring, repetitive, manual processes than using robotic automation, but it is a very handy band-aid to quickly patch something up.

The real solution to dealing with repetitive manual processes comes from one of these approaches:

  1. Change or eliminate the process – boring processes tend to be hangovers from the past. A long, long time ago something went wrong, someone wrote a process to stop it happening again, and it became gospel. People stopped questioning the need for the process long ago, now “it’s just the way things are done around here”.  Challenge it, eliminate it, or change it.
  2. Integrate the systems with APIs – having a robot copy and paste info between applications is an unbelievably dumb use of technology. The applications should pass the data between them with an API.  Job done.  Robotic process automation is a quick, cost effective stopgap to use until you can build APIs, or until one of the old applications is turned off, but it is not the long-term solution.
  3. Fully digitalize the process – using RPA to complete a half-digitalized process is better than using people, but the real solution is to fully digitalize the process. If someone fills in a form online, that should be the start of an end-to-end digital process, none of the information entered online should ever be re-typed by a person or a robot.

Summary

AI, Robots, Robotic Automation and Machine Learning.  These are all related, but they are not the same. It’s like saying calculators, spreadsheets and PlayStations are all the same, yes they are computerized, yes they use electricity, yes they are digital, but they are not the same thing.   Media, science fiction, and Netflix all get them mixed up, and they all tell us that the robots are coming to take our jobs.  In some cases robots and AI might take your job, but hopefully robotic automation will only take the boring bits anyway.

 

Posted by Mike Bullock

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