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Robotic process automation

Robotic process automation (or RPA) is an emerging form of business process automation technology based on the notion of software robots or artificial intelligence (AI) workers.[1]

In traditional workflow automation tools, a software developer produces a list of actions to automate a task and interface to the back-end system using internal application programming interfaces (APIs) or dedicated scripting language. In contrast, RPA systems develop the action list by watching the user perform that task in the application's graphical user interface (GUI), and then perform the automation by repeating those tasks directly in the GUI. This can lower the barrier to use of automation in products that might not otherwise feature APIs for this purpose.

RPA tools have strong technical similarities to graphical user interface testing tools. These tools also automate interactions with the GUI, and often do so by repeating a set of demonstration actions performed by a user. RPA tools differ from such systems including features that allow data to be handled in and between multiple applications, for instance, receiving email containing an invoice, extracting the data, and then typing that into a bookkeeping system. The data manipulation aspect is not something one would normally find in a testing tool.

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Historic evolution

As a form of automation, the same concept has been around for a long time in the form of screen scraping but RPA is considered to be a significant technological evolution of this technique in the sense that new software platforms are emerging which are sufficiently mature, resilient, scalable and reliable to make this approach viable for use in large enterprises[2] (who would otherwise be reluctant due to perceived risks to quality and reputation).

By way of illustration of how far the technology has developed since its early form in screen scraping, it is useful to consider the example cited in one academic study. Users of one platform at Xchanging - a UK-based global company which provides business processing, technology and procurement services across the globe - anthropomorphized their robot into a co-worker named "Poppy" and even invited "her" to the Christmas party.[3][4] Such an illustration perhaps serves to demonstrate the level of intuition, engagement and ease of use of modern RPA technology platforms, that leads their users (or "trainers") to relate to them as beings rather than abstract software services. The "code free" nature of RPA (described below) is just one of a number of significant differentiating features of RPA vs. screen scraping.

Deployment

The hosting of RPA services also aligns with the metaphor of a software robot, with each robotic instance having its own virtual workstation, much like a human worker. The robot uses keyboard and mouse controls to take actions and execute automations. Normally all of these actions take place in a virtual environment and not on screen; the robot does not need a physical screen to operate, rather it interprets the screen display electronically. The scalability of modern solutions based on architectures such as these owes much to the advent of virtualization technology, without which the scalability of large deployments would be limited by available capacity to manage physical hardware and by the associated costs. The implementation of RPA in business enterprises has shown dramatic cost savings when compared to traditional non-RPA solutions.[5]

RPA software vendors

Impact of RPA on employment

According to Harvard Business Review, most operations groups adopting RPA have promised their employees that automation would not result in layoffs.[3] Instead, workers have been redeployed to do more interesting work. One academic study highlighted that knowledge workers did not feel threatened by automation: they embraced it and viewed the robots as team-mates.[4] The same study highlighted that, rather than resulting in a lower "headcount", the technology was deployed in such a way as to achieve more work and greater productivity with the same number of people.

Conversely however, some analysts proffer that RPA represents a threat to the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry.[7] The thesis behind this notion is that RPA will enable enterprises to "repatriate" processes from offshore locations into local data centers, with the benefit of this new technology. The effect, if true, will be to create high value jobs for skilled process designers in onshore locations (and within the associated supply chain of IT hardware, data center management, etc.) but to decrease the available opportunity to low skilled workers offshore. On the other hand, this discussion appears to be healthy ground for debate as another academic study was at pains to counter the so-called "myth" that RPA will bring back many jobs from offshore.[4]

Impact on Society

Academic studies[8][9] project that RPA, among other technological trends, is expected to drive a new wave of productivity and efficiency gains in the global labour market. Although not directly attributable to RPA alone, Oxford University conjectures that up to 35% of all jobs may have been automated by 2035.[8]

In a TEDx talk[10] hosted by UCL in London, entrepreneur David Moss explains that digital labour in the form of RPA is not only likely to revolutionise the cost model of the services industry by driving the price of products and services down, but that it is likely to drive up service levels, quality of outcomes and create increased opportunity for the personalisation of services.

Meanwhile, Professor Willcocks, author of the LSE paper[9] cited above, speaks of increased job satisfaction and intellectual stimulation, characterising the technology as having the ability to "take the robot out of the human",[11] a reference to the notion that robots will take over the mundane and repetitive portions of people's daily workload, leaving them to be redeployed into more interpersonal roles or to concentrate on the remaining, more meaningful, portions of their day.

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