The notion of a dystopian future where we witness ‘the rise of the robots’ has become part of our world culture. It’s a natural enough reaction for humans to worry about sentient cyborgs and self-aware systems, but popular culture has a tendency to amplify extremes, while engineering realities are actually rather more down to earth.
Our CEO John Donahoe has spoken openly about the common assumption that it’s going to be people or robots, all or nothing. Actually what we find in the real world is that it doesn’t work that way at all. John has emphatically talked about how both physical robots and software-based intelligent automation can automate part of the job, but not the full job.
This is where robots and intelligent automation can now replace the repetitive, manual work that nobody enjoys doing. Technology can now help us replace manual work and create new opportunities to focus on higher-value pursuits, research and innovations.
A non-binary fusion point
This wider non-binary reality is good news, but it also creates a challenge. It is not a binary human or robot world, it is a contemporary, non-binary world that is shaped by a new fusion point where robots (meaning all forms of software- and hardware-based intelligent automation) and humans work together.
The tough part here is assessing, calculating and ultimately managing the variables in this non-binary solution. When we know ‘how much robot’ to apply to a given workload or task, then we can most productively bring intelligent automation online in all disciplines of industry.
How much robot is enough?
This raises a number of questions. How do we start to engineer automation into our lives to enable us to focus on higher-value human activities? How do we apply automation to our world to actually create jobs so that the rise of the robots is nothing more than a video game? In any given scenario, how much robot is enough?
Part of the answer lies in engineering and mathematics, while another part of the answer lies in longer-term social and behavioural sciences as we start to understand how to move to so-called Industry 4.0 with all its process automation. With the first industrial revolution driven by mechanisation and steam power, the second welcomed the mass-production assembly line. The third industrial revolution is agreed to be the age of computers and basic ‘dumb’ automation, so this leads us logically to the fourth – the age we call Industry 4.0 – with its cyber physical systems and intelligent automation.
Looking at the working mechanics of Industry 4.0, we can start to benchmark and calculate our application of ‘how much robot’ is enough by assessing what type of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) best suits the line of business operations we are seeking to finesse.
As we have said before on diginomica, in a world where cloud-based IT services and data-driven workflows are running so many parts of digital business, the action to automate defined processes through robotic intelligence makes a lot of sense. By using software application architecture controls, based upon an agreed ‘data model’, we can specify what actions our RPA robots do within our software universe.
Levels of RPA
At the first level we have Attended RPA. This is the application of software ‘bots’ that work inside and alongside a firm’s installed base of software applications and processes to perform specific tasks dependent on predefined triggers. The bot itself is merely a smaller software program built to serve a software program. In Attended RPA, the user oversees the bot’s actions and decides when to initiate and terminate its actions, so very little centralised management is required.
We can hand greater control over to the software robots and bots by moving to Unattended RPA, but we should decide beforehand how our systems will cope with exception handling i.e. that point where the bot doesn’t know what to do. This again is where we see manual connection to intelligently automated systems still very much being a part of the way we now engineer the new IT stack.
Deeper here we can also consider Smart Automation i.e. automation with higher-level machine learning abilities that can process unstructured data types or handle reconciliations in structured data.
Finally, there is Full Automation: a level where bots are actually capable of managing not only the systems they are deployed into, but where bots can also manage bots when required to keep the whole system alive and active.
But bots managing bots is not the rise of the robots. It is simply software looking after the health of other software in terms of its function, ingestion of data, need for uptime and ability to execute, process and do its job.
Technology creates jobs, always
So looking at the specifics of how we engineer robots and intelligent automation into our world, let us just remember that technology has created many more jobs than it has destroyed in the last 144 years. This assertion is backed up by a Deloitte study, which has examined this trend.
Deloitte economists Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole have openly conceded that workplace-related often makes headlines because of its conspicuous destructive effects. But, at the same time say the writers, we must realise that when a machine replaces a human the result, paradoxically, is faster growth and, in time, rising employment. The Deloitte team also note that UK employment figures since 1871 confirm that technological change overall has coincided with the creation, not destruction, of work.
The productivity breaking point
Looking ahead then, we often talk about the state of work being at a productivity breaking point, where humans are simply unable to execute the sheer volume of tasks that present themselves on a daily basis. We now have an opportunity to combat the volume and complexity of these tasks by bringing intelligent automation into the workplace.
This process, this move to Industry 4.0, this move to embrace (but control) the engineering of the human-to-robot fusion point, describes our next most urgent action across all industries.
It’s not the rise of the robots; it’s the rising importance of intelligent automation.
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Disclosure - ServiceNow is a diginomica premier partner at time of posting.