Can the real Intelligent Automation please stand up

There’s a few new terms on the market, they’re on the agenda of every consultant of the Big 4. CIOs have already started ‘proof of concepts’ and feasibility studies to ensure they don’t have the rug pulled from underneath them by disrupters or their competition. Many reputable sources and industry pundits are convinced that we are on the brink of a new industrial revolution. Well as the title suggests we think you will agree that there is an excitement being built around the technologies of Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation and it all sounds pretty serious right?  

I was watching a BBC Horizon show from 1977 called the ‘Now The Chips Are Down’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01z4rrj/credits, where the focus of the programme was on the new personal computers coming to market, their sophistication in language understanding and optical character recognition. The show ends with a discussion amongst the then leaders of industry talking about the future impact of this new technology and how it could result in a 3 day week. Funnily enough we’re all here today and we’re probably busier than ever. I wonder if the same conversations have been had over and over again if we look back through history?

In this article, we ask what really is Intelligent Automation and further understand the associated technologies of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and finally how they all relate?

Starting with RPA, according to one of the leading providers (who will remain anonymous as they have considerably deeper pockets than your author), I will quote them verbatim from one of their online posts;

“RPA software robots are effectively dumb: they will do exactly what you have trained them to do”. There is no ‘intelligence’ in them.

They state that “if anyone talks about Intelligent Automation, or Cognitive Robotic Process Automation, then start putting on your cynic’s hat”.

So my dear reader, locate your cynics hat, place firmly on your head, and let’s continue.

I feel the quoted provider of RPA, is more concerned with steering the market’s expectations to align with their capabilities of their product. I guess they are not wanting their customers to ask for an intelligent product. The term ‘robot’, according to experts, can include intelligence and thus AI, so we feel ruling this out of RPA is selling it short somewhat.

Arguments aside, RPA interacts the same way as your employees do with their systems. For example, if we look at a simple business process where an employee takes data from an MS Excel spreadsheet and then loads particular values into the user interface of an SAP platform, this would all be done by recognising buttons, executing mouse clicks and navigating the user interfaces of both MS Excel and SAP. Just as a human would. To compare this to older approaches to process automation where a programmer may work in code below the user interface layer to accomplish this task, requiring specialist skills and greater expense to create reasonably simple automation tasks.

So in summary RPA is:

Versatile for a business user to create an automated process without having to understand coding or the complexities of a platform

Easily maintainable

Agnostic, so it can work with a wide variety of systems, applications and operating systems

Return on investment is quicker as it is typically faster and thus lower cost to automate a business process

Ok, that’s all great, however, the cynic’s hat hasn’t had much use yet. So let’s delve further into the exotic world of AI. I hope to convince you that it isn’t exotic, and can offer a lot of benefits to an organisation already. We will touch on a few of the areas of the existing benefits, and a few of the areas you should be concerned with.

Machine learning and Cognitive technologies all sit under the term Artificial Intelligence. You will all be familiar with the current applications of Tesla and their auto-pilot self-driving cars through to Amazon’s Alexa and its almost flawless implementation of natural language understanding. There are now platforms capable of making decisions on huge humanly incomprehensible datasets, making thousands of decisions in the blink of an eye. What we’re really interested in with AI is technologies with the ability to uncover and learn complex rules hidden in a system or data. Consciousness and human-like platforms could be hundreds of years away, and my argument would be that we don’t need these capabilities to already deploy and reap huge benefits within our organisations.

Large platform providers like IBM with their offering ‘Watson’ and Microsoft’s self-named ‘Microsoft Cognitive Services’ support the above reality, that we can apply techniques that sit under the AI banner today in our businesses. This isn’t something cynics could have much argument with. We can see that natural language processing (NLP) works and has its applications and a number of businesses have deployed chatbots to help bolster their IT support desks. Furthermore, companies like IPSoft are pioneering approaches where a system learns to make business decisions drawn from conversational data in real-time.

Science fiction is rapidly stepping into science fact and entering mainstream business. Backing this is a rapid and increasing drive of investment and capability and we’re told to prepare or be afraid, depending on which camp you sit in (Musk or Zuckerberg).

In summary AI is:

An umbrella term for a wide variety of subject areas, from analysis algorithms through to learning systems

It helps a business to capture complex, potentially undocumented rules, and use these to automate future business decisions

Includes the academic areas of study such as consciousness,  however, this isn’t so relevant today and we should remember there are a plethora of powerful techniques we can apply and reap benefit in today’s organisations

Provides techniques so automation can be flexible, thus making it easier to implement and simpler to maintain 

So let’s finally discuss intelligent automation and then conclude. Are you still with the leading RPA provider we quoted above and their doubting of AI technology?

Intelligent Automation covers the growing and long-term pragmatic movement that sits above terms like RPA. It encapsulates the ideas that automation is important to business efficiency and competitiveness. Intelligent Automation means using machine learning and automation to be able to automate business processes that previously would have been out of reach for non-intelligent ‘dumb’ automation platforms. We use the intelligent algorithms and techniques to tackle the unpredictable variance in a business process, previously something that humans had to do. We can use Intelligent Automation to help us create automated systems quicker, lower cost and thus help us with our justification to our bosses and finance directors.

To conclude, Intelligent Automation is a valuable asset you should be thinking about, and one that is continuously increasing in speed and capability. Just for a moment, hold up the cynic’s hat and ask: “How can you best access the benefits of this technology within your organisation?”

Mat Rule is the co-founder of Tocalabs®, a company producing an enterprise Intelligent Automation platform (tocabot.io).

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