Robots are primed to change industry… any day now

10 Nov 2016

Robotic process automation. Image: PeterPhoto123/Shutterstock

Robotic process automation is on the verge of revolutionising businesses all over the world apparently, “exploding” onto the scene in recent weeks.

There have been more obvious industrial revolutions in the past (the introduction of steam, for example, or the railway), but robotic process automation (RPA) could prove just as big.

As ever, removing the laborious tasks from human hands signifies each industrial revolution, each age. In the current digital world, it makes sense that a digital ‘fix’ emerges.

Future Human

For that, read RPA.

Robotic process automation

Culture of change

Accenture talks of a “pervasive culture of change” in today’s business environment. Efficiency gains are the modus operandi, notwithstanding the constant need to sate an ever-thirsty audience. It’s not water consumers want, it’s speed. Everything nust be faster.

RPA is a “natural fit”, it says, because change can be delivered with speed and agility to realise benefits quickly. Increase speeds, reduce labour and you’ve got yourself a revolution.

“RPA is industry agnostic,” said John Kilbride, director at Deloitte Consulting. “It’s about routines and repetition.”

Wherever digital, manual work is repetitive; wherever simple commands can prove true forever, like logging data, issuing contracts, or finding law documents pertaining to cases – these are areas primed for RPA.

What can robots do?

What are robots good at? They’re good at mimicking the actions of a human. This means they can log in, access systems, go into mainframes, access web apps, open files, extract content, copy and move data etc. Simple commands, acted upon with relentless efficiency.

But robots struggle when there is deviation from rules, according to Kilbride. “They don’t make decisions.”

One example of how RPA can help businesses and their staff is creating new accounts for people in the workplace, or the home.

“It’s not about automating something end to end,” he said, “it’s taking the heavy lifting out, removing the boring stuff.”

This has proven true across many industries. For example, last month Dutch airline KLM partnered with DigitalGenius to help incorporate machine learning into its customer service – though humans are in no way getting replaced.

Come fly with me

DigitalGenius software processed 60,000 questions and answers used by operators in recent years; ranking every word, sentence and phrase as number vectors that, when recalculated, provide potentially satisfying responses.

After a question is asked, these responses appear for the customer care agent to pick from, tailor and correct. This means the machine is doing the laborious work of finding the general resolution, but the agent does the rest.

“These technologies are all very complementary,” said Kilbride. “An example of where it’s being deployed successfully at the front-end is on new account opening, or staff on-boarding. Telcos are doing it.

“Previously it might take a few days of people to mess about with controls, pressing the right buttons, filling in the right files all just to create an account. RPA can accelerate that process.”

A recent report from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics looked at this area, specifically investigating if such automation was bad news for modern workforces. It turns out there might not be much to be afraid of.

Machine learning, especially deep learning, requires “massive amounts of correctly labelled data, which requires human input at all stages,” according to Prof Alan Smeaton, director of the organisation.

Varying degrees

Machines will, however, herald a new working environment.

According to a new report from Harvey Nash, the chance of automation varies greatly with job role. Testers and IT operations professionals will likely see their job role significantly affected in the next decade (67pc and 63pc respectively), with CIO/VP IT and programme management least affected (31pc and 30pc respectively).

“Through automation, it is possible that ten years from now, the technology team will be unrecognisable in today’s terms,” said Harvey Nash’s Gavin Fox.

“Even for those roles relatively unaffected directly by automation, there is a major indirect effect – anything up to half of their work colleagues may be machines by 2027.”

Fox says technology careers are in a state of flux. On one side, technology is ‘eating itself’, through commoditising and automating certain roles, but on the other side, new opportunities are being created in areas like front-end, mobile and AI.

Robots are here

At a management level, removing processing from a person’s role could, in theory, free up more time for customer-centric work.

And situations like that are all of a sudden becoming more prevalent, with RPA “exploding” across Europe since the summer.

“We thought it would be bigger a bit earlier across Europe,” said Kilbride, with Deloitte expecting this influx of RPA perhaps a full year ago.

“But we have now seen a shift,” he said. That means one thing: the robots are here.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic