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Robotic process automation


Robotic process automation (or RPA) is a form of business process automation technology based on metaphorical software robots (bots) or on artificial intelligence (AI)/digital workers. It is sometimes referred to as software robotics (not to be confused with robot software).

RPA tools have strong technical similarities to graphical user interface testing. 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 in that they 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.

As a form of automation, the concept has been around for a long time in the form of screen scraping, which can be traced back to early forms of malware. However, RPA is much more extensible, consisting of API integration into other enterprise applications, connectors into ITSM systems, terminal services and even some types of AI (eg Machine Learning) services such as image recognition. It is considered to be a significant technological evolution 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 (who would otherwise be reluctant due to perceived risks to quality and reputation).

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.

According to Harvard Business Review, most operations groups adopting RPA have promised their employees that automation would not result in layoffs. 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. 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.

There are geographic implications to the trend in robotic automation. In the example above where an offshored process is "repatriated" under the control of the client organization (or even displaced by a Business Process Outsourcer from an offshore location to a data centre, the impact will be a deficit in economic activity to the offshore location and an economic benefit to the originating economy. On this basis, developed economies with skills and technological infrastructure to develop and support a robotic automation capability can be expected to achieve a net benefit from the trend.

In a separate TEDx in 2019 talk, Japanese business executive, and former CIO of Barclays bank, Koichi Hasegawa noted that digital robots can be a positive effect on society if we start using a robot with empathy to help every person. He provides a case study of the Japanese insurance companies Sompo Japan and Aioi both of whom deployed bots to speed up the process of insurance pay-outs in past massive disaster incidents.

Robotic process automation 2.0, often referred to as "unassisted RPA" or RPAAI, is the next generation of RPA related technologies. Technological advancements and improvements around artificial intelligence technologies are making it easier for businesses to take advantage of the benefits of RPA without dedicating a large budget for development work.

Conversely however, a BPO provider may seek to effect some form of client lock-in by means of automation. By removing cost from a business operation, where the BPO provider is considered to be the owner of the intellectual property and physical implementation of a robotic automation solution (perhaps in terms of hardware, ownership of software licences, etc.), the provider can make it very difficult for the client to take a process back "in house" or elect a new BPO provider. This effect occurs as the associated cost savings made through automation would - temporarily at least - have to be reintroduced to the business in order to whilst the technical solution is reimplemented in the new operational context.