Artificial intelligence grabs headlines, but the true impact of robotics is in the back office

Business process automation gears

The hype over machine learning masks the real changes happening in the workplace.

Looking back on 2016, it would be easy to think that this was the year that artificial intelligence arrived, borne in by an army of automated workers. Media outlets bombarded us with news on the future of AI and automation. The vision of a dystopian future where robots do all the work and humans are trapped in a jobless, meaningless existence drove headlines of all kind. In politics, this ranged from speculation around a universal basic income, to debates over whether Donald Trump can reverse decades of technological progress in US manufacturing. In AI, the latest tangential development from any tech giant was duly reported as headline news.

One place that robots and AI are not showing up is in the stats. US unemployment at the end of 2016 was less than five percent, and the year saw a meaningful acceleration in average years. For a robot-dominated hellscape, the US economy is doing pretty well.

How can we explain these two apparently contradictory ideas? If AI is changing the world, why is the world so stubbornly the same?

The answer is simple. AI is an exciting technology, but it has yet to arrive. What we see today is instead the continuation of a decades-long, if not centuries-long process: the automation of mundane tasks, resulting in jobs that are safer and more stimulating -- not to mention abundant.

That is not to say there is nothing new in the world of automation. On the contrary, we are seeing a quantum leap in terms of what is possible within the realm of automation. The automation of mundane physical tasks has long been the key form of automation, from the Ford assembly line in Detroit to Chinese plants churning out iPhones. Today, the major advance is in the automation of mundane tasks and processes, the back offices that form a huge part of 21st century business.

This new frontier in robotics can offer transformative potential to modern enterprises. To give one example of many, a major European life sciences company was able to reduce time and resources spent on financial processes to achieve almost 90 percent automation. The company began its automation transformation by robotizing 19 processes in three business groups, comprised of 60 legal entities. Following a successful first phase, it then carried out a second phase, involving the migration of an additional six business groups, with a total scope of 130 legal entities. By the time the process was complete, the organization had achieved an automation rate of about 90 percent, and had reduced their financial close process from over two weeks to only three days.

Crucial to this success is leaving behind the idea of robotics as metal men standing in for the activities of human beings. Instead, by focusing on the process, these "software robots" are able to automate major activities in a controlled, flexible environment that offers the management team much greater control over the process, and the ability to fine tune without hiring an army of experts for maintenance. More importantly, these robotized processes allow companies to make major leaps forward in terms of their growth and upward trajectory.

For the company’s employees they’re now able to say goodbye to the drudgery of simple, repetitive tasks, just as factory workers have said goodbye to the back-breaking labor and hazards of early industrial workplaces. Work is continuing its long-standing trajectory: work is moving towards greater education and higher skill levels, making for a more fulfilling workplace. In one sense, this gives a preview of what the workplace of the future will look like. Instead of masses of human-looking robots carrying out the work once done by hard working humans, it’s a group of highly-skilled, highly productive workers using cutting edge technological tools.

This new level of automation has a profound impact on how enterprises do business. With the office back end now automated and vastly more flexible, that creates greater prioritization of the customer needs through the front end. Customer experience is all, and executives can devote their energy and creativity to maximizing customer experience, and ensuring that the entire business is directed towards that end. The future isn’t armies of robots, it’s a finely tuned enterprise serving the customer.

Artificial intelligence remains an exciting potential development, and existing technology has given a hint of what could one day be possible. But to truly understand the biggest development in the modern enterprise, you need to be thinking about processes and software robots. Those are changing the lives of customers today -- and the C-suite who are focused on this change will be best positioned to take advantage.

Simon ShahSimon Shah is the chief marketing officer at Redwood Software.

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