Gangsta RPA?

Looking for more efficient ways of doing business is nothing new. If you’re worried about RPA, then you might have some Ludd blood in your ancestry. Robotic Process Automation isn’t just the future. It’s now.

The very first industrial machines were a forerunner of RPA. The technology is clearly lightyears apart, but the purpose is exactly the same. Machines are more efficient. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t get ill. They don’t need to be paid every month. They don’t get in a petty argument with Joan from accounts over a misunderstanding about sandwiches. They don’t drink too much at the Christmas party and throw up in a waste paper basket in the manager’s room. It’s hardly surprising that employers are constantly looking for ways of working with greater efficiency.

And ever since the industrial revolution – perhaps the most significant era in the history of humanity – we have been constantly looking for ways to do things better. Certainly more cost effectively. There has always been opposition to these changes and that is likely to continue.

If you’re not quite up to speed with what RPA is, then it is simple to define. It’s software – a bot, usually – that undertakes a task that was previously done manually. The task is invariably repetitive, time consuming, and subject to human error.

I mentioned an example in a previous blog; consider the task of importing data onto a spreadsheet, and then employing that data in a variety of ways to arrive at a series of reports. This is something an RPA bot could do easily, saving a great deal of manual labour. These reports are something that we take for granted these days. Spreadsheets are capable of a bewildering array of mathematical gymnastics, but before such a platform existed, such results relied on ancient adding machines and a great deal of manpower. And if we go further back, the manpower increases even more with hand-written ledgers and hand-copied copies. These simple examples demonstrate how business and commerce has always looked to streamline its necessary functions, and RPA is simply the latest link in the chain.

Something as obvious as order processing has been traditionally undertaken wholly manually, often with several employees playing a part in the mechanism from start to finish. An RPA bot can remove a lot of this manual effort by dealing with all the electronic parts of the process.Another simple example would be dealing with emails. A large company may receive thousands of emails every hour, and bots can learn how to deal with generic queries and filter the less specific mails to the relevant departments.

In fact, pretty much anything that is repetitive, electronic and learnable is fair game for RPA.

Big business already understands how important RPA is, and budgets are increasing year on year, and this is going to be the norm for the foreseeable future. And as the technology progresses and is streamlined, smaller businesses will be able to avail of the obvious advantages.

This brings in a wider issue – how important is the human touch?

When it comes to actual processing of menial tasks then there is no doubt; machines are superior to people, for all the reasons mentioned above and many more. They are quicker, they don’t make mistakes and they are easy to maintain. The more we allow machines to take the strain, the more efficiently the process runs. What value does a human bring to such a process?

We are, of course, far more than simple processors. We are intuitive. We can think in an abstract manner. We can empathise. We have a sense of humour. We are not easy to replace.

Or are we?

I expect you have seen this, and it certainly puts the philosophical cat amongst the metaphorical pigeons. I think that most of us would prefer to deal with a human being if given a choice, but if we aren’t given that choice, and we are blissfully ignorant, then there’s no problem, is there? This technology is still quite new and needs much development, but this example gives us a glimpse into an inevitable future where AI robotics replaces the need for people in an increasing manner.

The ramifications of this are huge, and, as with many societal changes that are triggered by technology, we don’t understand what we are doing or quite where this will lead us to.

Make no mistake though – we are on this path, and we started on it about two hundred and fifty years ago. RPA is just an evolutionary link in the capitalist chain.

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