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10/23/2015
12:15 PM
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Your Robot Replacement Has Arrived

Robotic process automation can help companies operate more frugally and efficiently, though potentially at the expense of human workers.

These 8 Technologies Could Make Robots Better
These 8 Technologies Could Make Robots Better
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

When is a robot not a robot? When it's robotic process automation, or RPA.

In a new research paper, "The IT Function and Robotic Process Automation," the Outsourcing Unit at London School of Economics finds that RPA can provide a variety of business benefits, and it anticipates accelerated deployment in the years to come. The paper followed three case studies of customers of RPA-provider Blue Prism. In addition, Blue Prism partly funded the paper.

RPA is similar to business process management, but it doesn't require developers to create code. It's software.

As implemented by firms such as Automation Anywhere or Blue Prism, RPA allows people to generate code through a menu-driven drag-and-drop visual interface. That code can then handle structured, repetitive tasks like onboarding employees at a large company. Think of it as software that can be trained to operate the business applications a human would use for routine clerical or administrative work.

(Image: Blue Prism)

(Image: Blue Prism)

As the paper explains:

RPA software is ideally suited to replace humans for so called "swivel chair" processes; processes where humans take inputs from one set of systems (for example, email), process those inputs using rules, and then enter the outputs into systems of record (for example, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems).

Implemented correctly, RPA can make routine human resources work, for example, more efficient and affordable by taking people out of the loop. The report concedes this could reduce the need for human resources employees.

"There would be fewer HR specialists needed overall if the volume of work was constant, but those HR specialists remaining should have more challenging work," the paper says.

This acknowledgement underscores the angst surrounding advancements in automation and artificial intelligence: Technology may allow people to focus on higher-value, less easily automated work, but it's not clear whether there will be enough of these improved jobs to go around. Nor is it obvious that what cannot be automated today will remain the province of people tomorrow.

RPA occupies a middle ground between shadow IT -- tools deployed without the oversight of IT -- and traditional IT. The paper characterizes it as "lightweight IT" in the sense that it can be begin as a project that doesn't require IT involvement, but may need IT support as it spreads through an organization. Though it tends to be business-led, it's clearly an option that IT should evaluate.

[See the real-world application of RPA. Read Using RPA in Banking to Streamline Development.]

Despite its employment implications, there's little doubt that companies can find value in RPA. The paper notes that some companies surveyed have automated more than 35% of their back-office transactions. The benefits include reduced costs, greater process efficiency and accuracy, and improved customer satisfaction.

Having analyzed the financial impact of RPA deployments at Telefonica O2, Xchanging, and an unnamed major utility, the paper cites ROI figures of 650% to 800% over three years for Telefonica OS, 30% per process (14 automated) for Xchanging, and 200% over one year for the utility.

However, the paper doesn't explore the challenge of asking people to train their computers to replace them.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
10/26/2015 | 12:40:39 PM
Re: Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone
@nomii- I'm quite sure in some future world, there will be no need for humans to work. We'll build robots that do the work, even robots that design and repair future robots. We'll all lie around and be fed bon bons by robots and do art and science all day for fun and human improvement. Like Star Trek but with better robots. There is no reason whatsoever that we should have to work just to be employed and make money. 

The problem is not building a robot that can replace us all and free us up to live a nice life. We will eventually make robots that can do anything.

The problem is when we have robots for half the jobs. Because the jobs we'll replace first are the low paying jobs. We'll create a terrible class war between people who still have a job and those that don't. And we'll use words like freeloader and drag on the economy and all of that. We already see it in the elections in the US now. 

What do you do when you have more people than people you need to employ to make the world work? That's scary. But it isn't scary at all to have a world where no one needs to work, because you'll change your view of money and goods enitrely.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
10/26/2015 | 8:15:16 AM
Re: Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone
Maybe not every job but playing devil's advocate here, what if they can take half of human jobs?  What do countries with 50% unemployment look like?  We talk about financial divides now, imagine what it would be like which half of the workforce unemployed.  I think this is part of David's overly simplified statement about it being a rough transition, the very beginning of this process would hurt a lot of people.  How quickly that shift in the economy could recover isn't something I've heard a lot about but if it takes as little as a few years the damage would still be incredible. 
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
10/24/2015 | 12:29:22 PM
Re: Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone
I wouldn't mind for robots to take care of the dull and repetitive work; as long as companies have programs where people can transition into jobs that would allow them to contribute to new ways to the organization.  I think there will always be a place for humans,  even in the most robot friendly organization like German or Japanese car manufactures, the role of a human is crucial to make sure the factory work as planned.  Do people here think that robots could take over all jobs in an organization?
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/24/2015 | 1:38:52 AM
Re: Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone

@David I am surprised with your second point. Are you sure that you are really comfortable with robots running our jobs. I am pretty much concerned at the present state of unemployment even with the living beings and then over and above giving the employed place  to robots, you are asking for chaos. I am sure the robots will be fine in doing a precision or jobs required heavier demands but leaving everything to them does not sound comfortable to me.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
10/23/2015 | 5:27:55 PM
Re: Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone
Agreed, Charlie. But there are two issues I see. 1) The people who will lose their jobs aren't trained to do the work still to be done and it is goign to hurt. 2) I'm fine with us all losing our jobs and letting the robots run the Earth, but the transition to that is goign to be rough.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
10/23/2015 | 2:40:38 PM
Layoffs, yes, but many higher level tasks remain undone
I have no doubt that Robot Process Automation or software doing lightweight IT can replace repetitive human tasks, particularly the "swivel chair" tasks cited. And that will lead to layoffs. But the fact remains that much higher level work remains undone, even at successful businesses, because no one can get to it. Surrounding products with more intelligent customer service might be a start.
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