How robotic is your process ?

Largely overlooked in the late 1990s amid the excitement over Y2K, Ray Kurzweil, certified genius, inventor, AI guru, prolific author, and currently director of engineering at Google, started talking about nanobots. While the IT industry was panicking over the prospect of the global failure of millions of computers that had not been programmed to work with a date-field value exceeding 1999, Kurzweil was imagining miniaturized, AI-driven devices that would operate inside human bodies, traveling through the blood, fighting disease, and replenishing cells. With such intelligent robots tending to their bodies’ care and maintenance, according to Kurzweil, humans could all expect to live Methuselah-length lifespans. (Whether such humans’ 401(k) plans would allow for funding virtual immortality was not really part of the discussion.)

The promise of RPA

Nanobots come readily to mind because of the loud noises being made of late about robotic process automation (RPA). Surely you have run across the breathless claims about how RPA (sometimes referred to as intelligent process automation or IPA) will help your business save time, save money, improve accuracy, and provide superior customer satisfaction? RPA will help save time because computers can perform many routine tasks faster than humans; save money because you will be able to lay off a good percentage of those slow humans; improve accuracy because, once properly programmed, computers will never make a mistake; and enable superior customer satisfaction because invoices will always be correct, insurance claims will be issued promptly and accurately, and the computer voice will always know what you are talking about.

These claims beg the question: Is there anything new about these products, the underlying problems they are trying to solve, the solutions they propose, or the business value they offer? Or, is RPA pretty much a case of old wine in new bottles?

RPA’s origin

For those around the industry in the early 1990s, the story of RPA was largely written with the introduction of imaging technology and workflow software. This was about the time the vision of “the paperless office” was completed. Companies could imagine emptying the file cabinets by scanning all that paper and storing it on a computer disk or two. Kurzweil, himself, in fact, made his first fortune on the radical idea that you could scan a paper document and make it much more useful to the business by applying optical character recognition (OCR) to its contents before storing it electronically. OCR became a standard software component in scanning devices. Companies such as Xerox, Wang Laboratories, Kofax, and others popularized these new features and added workflow software, for example, to route the newly scanned documents around a hierarchy of approvers to complete an invoicing or a claims transaction. (The remnants of Kurzweil’s work still drives product at Nuance.) Soon, many of these capabilities were integrated into common desktop devices. Nobody at that time thought to call this integrated software application suite a robot.

But some things are different about today’s RPA, even if the story itself is familiar. The four major new features in today’s products are high-level integration among enterprise software environments, the application of machine learning algorithms to classification and workflow operations, the addition of voice interaction technologies to facilitate partnership and/or guidance with humans involved in the process, and “app-like” system control from multiple kinds of devices. In the 1990s, these were difficult or impractical to try to accomplish in the siloed software environments of the day.

The RPA vision

The new capabilities are necessary for RPA to go beyond the image of an Amazon pick-and-place robot reaching into bins and filling boxes. In the RPA vision, there is at least the seed of a much more ambitious goal: In RPA, many applications would incorporate cognitive automation as well as process automation. The vision includes handling the unstructured puzzles in processes as well as solving the highly structured environments where they have been deployed so far. And, of course, in this conversation, the “robot” in RPA is simply a set of software components (bots) rolled into a (hopefully) smart application system.

Cognitive automation of course is the focus of cognitive computing, which has not been primarily concerned with process. But inevitably these two worlds of automation, the process-centered and the cognitive-centered, must interact, if not merge, in many business circumstances.

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