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Robots v. “the Cogs”

by Kevin Dodds

A combination of human resources and automation manage business processes. A loan application, for instance, involves the submission of specified financial documents for analysis, a human-designed algorithm for the review of the data, and human beings to shepherd the process along. Healthcare is another large sector where human beings provide services and a far larger number of people handle paperwork with help from automation. In these and similar economic sectors, the potential for increased productivity and gains in efficiency in multi-stage workflows are currently driving a massive shift toward “robotic process automation” (RPA).

The RPA move to replace cognitive, thinking human beings (“cogs”) in complex multi-stage business processes with more automation means “sewing together” fully automated processes so they need less—and eventually no—human intervention between automated stages.

The advantages that the “software robots” bring are many:

  • Shorter process cycles
  • Decreased (expensive) human labor required
  • Improved data accuracy
  • Rich data audit trails

How big of a trend is this? Well, an Oxford University study predicts the automation of 35% of all jobs in the UK by 2035. And if you think that’s an anomaly, then you should read last year’s World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs” report. It estimates the loss of 5.1 million jobs to labor market disruption from 2015–2020 in the countries covered by the report.

The RPA revolution will probably follow the same path as most other significant innovations: initial resistance, followed by reluctant acceptance. Once a few firms have made the leap and can outperform competitors that have not automated as much, RPA’s incorporation into the core business processes of entire industry sectors is assured. Sales, insurance, and especially customer service are areas most likely to feel the effects of RPA in the near term.

RPA will hit a wall when systems need the kinds of cognitive reasoning and judgment calls only humans can now make. Computers can’t perform quality assurance on themselves, for example, and algorithmically driven processes will always require humans to ensure continuous improvement. The type of human resources needed to fine-tune workflows, however, are not necessarily IT specialists. The software platforms these processes run on, like the current crowdsourcing work management environments, use visual drag-and-drop tools to connect automated routines. Process engineers can manage them without the assistance of coders.

So, the future of millions of humans rests not with the mechanical wonders of our imagination like C-3PO, R2-D2, or K-2SO, but with those folks tasked with re-engineering the processes that underlie our economy.

posted by Shyamali Ghosh on January 16, 2017

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