Just as mechanical robots revolutionised assembly lines in the 1960s, robotic process automation (RPA) is revolutionising office work. Any rules-based repetitive task can be handled faster, cheaper and more accurately by a software robot, and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) promise to increase this robotic productivity exponentially in the future.
RPA is a tool that allows employees to deploy virtual “robots” on their workstation to replicate manual repetitive tasks, interacting with multiple applications and keying in responses as if it were a human operator. Unlike enterprise applications, which are expensive, rigid and require long implementation cycles, RPA assistants can be easily deployed on a single workstation and scaled upward or downward as needed. Fast, accurate and indefatigable, software robots are technology agnostic and can work across legacy systems with no changes to the underlying technology infrastructure.
Companies in many sectors have already deployed RPA, notably to transform customer service and improve financial performance and compliance. These applications alone are expected to offer companies a huge reduction in labour costs. For instance, some recent case studies found that the return on investment in the first year varied between 30 and as much as 200 percent. Those savings will only grow as new RPA applications are discovered and RPA is combined with AI to broaden the scope of work beyond the manipulation of structured data to include more sophisticated predictive and unstructured use cases.
Here are five of the more interesting emerging applications we are watching within the technology, media and communications (TMC) industry group:
- Device activation – David Moss, co-founder and chief technology officer at RPA software provider Blue Prism, recently described in a TED Talk how a European telecom company used robots to meet a growing customer demand for faster mobile device activation. Software robots, working across multiple systems, were deployed alongside human coworkers to reduce activation times from a day or more to just over an hour.
- Content creation – Major news organisations have automated structured news content ranging from sports scores to promotions and corporate earnings reports and have begun to experiment with using artificial intelligence to create less-structured news. Media giant Tronc, for example, which owns the Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers and news websites, uses artificial intelligence to monitor trending stories online and automatically create topical multimedia posts without human intervention.
- Customer service – Chatbot technology similar to that used by Siri, Cortana and Alexa, is being deployed by technology providers to resolve first-line customer service challenges without long phone waits, escalating the calls as needed.
- Human resources – Not only can RPA free up human workers to focus on more satisfying and strategic work, but it can also be used to help manage the paperwork associated with hiring, paying and terminating employees.
- DevOps – Software developers are finding RPA to be an effective tool for software testing and other repetitive, structured continuous improvement processes.
A 2017 survey by the Institute of Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence found that over 70 percent of respondents said they were currently utilising RPA, and 66 percent said they were either expanding their current implementation or thinking about it. Nearly 70 percent also said their RPA spending would increase in the next 12 months. This is a remarkable rate of adoption. We are following these developments closely. For more on this topic, see our discussion, The March of Artificial Intelligence, in the January edition of PreView, our emerging risks publication.