l day, every day, millions of customer-service, finance, operations and administrative staff toil at mundane, repetitive, uninspiring jobs. Automating mundane tasks in our business world will deliver huge benefits by releasing staff to focus on high-value activities, slashing operating costs, right?
Be careful what you wish for. We are hugely unprepared for the next wave of robots set to come romping into the workplace.
But these robots won’t all be cute, like WALL-E’s girlfriend EVE. While there are thousands of robots like SoftBank’s Pepper, busy reading human emotions while working in healthcare, technology, education and retail, you won’t see the next generation of automated colleagues coming to your workplace.
With the aid of Software-as-a-Service, we will soon be helped by a virtual workforce called Robotic Process Automation. RPA technology allows us to configure computer software (robots, if you will) to manage end-to-end processes, manipulate data, trigger automatic responses and communicate with other digital systems.
Early results from workforce automation and software robotics signal this will be one of the biggest technology disruptors over the next decade. Our analysis at CGI reveals companies may be able to automate 50% of their business processes this way.
The upside of robotics comes with a dark side
In 1962, General Motors installed the first real industrial robot, the Unimate, in its New Jersey plant. Despite the obvious gains in manufacturing quality and productivity since then, many leading thinkers today hold dystopian fears for human rights in a world with robots as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and RPA take hold. In 2015, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking called for a ban on “offensive autonomous weapons”, arguing that while AI can make the battlefield a safer place for military personnel, offensive weapons that operate on their own initiative would lower the threshold to war, resulting in even greater loss of human life.
Musk has since called AI “probably humanity’s biggest existential threat”. Hawking has written that while development of AI could be the biggest event in human history, “it might also be the last”.
This was not a one-off warning. Musk has since called AI “probably humanity’s biggest existential threat”. Hawking has written that while development of AI could be the biggest event in human history, “it might also be the last”.
Managing the human impacts of RPA will be critical
No doubt, RPA will reduce operational costs (by up to 40%). It will improve accuracy, compliance, cyber security and customer satisfaction, thanks to a 24/7, instantly scalable, virtual workforce. A foundation for significant competitive advantage, it will deliver substantially bigger profits, enabling organisations to invest in the critical capabilities to succeed on their digital journey.
However, we must acknowledge the whole range of real organisational and human impacts of RPA. Widespread automation of mundane process work will mean eliminating countless jobs in existing organisations. And these jobs are vitally important to the people who do them.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report ‘The Future of Jobs’ forecasts: “Disruptive labour market changes, including the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries.”
However, in a classic example of optimistic bias, work in 2015 by Pew Research Center showed that while two-thirds of Americans believed robots would over the next 50 years inevitably perform most of the work now done by humans, about 80% also believed their own jobs would either “definitely” or “probably” exist in their current form within the same timeframe.
Forrester also takes a more optimistic view, stating: “Advances in automation technologies will mean humans increasingly work side by side with robots, software agents and other machines.”
Either way, organisations adopting RPA must be hyper-conscious of successfully managing the introduction of any virtual workforce, creating realistic and attractive pathways for displaced employees to achieve their new place in a digital future.
In 1942 Isaac Asimov introduced “The Three Laws of Robotics” from his fictional Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 AD.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
We will need to negotiate a similar compact with this next generation of robots in order to engage employees in an open, transparent discussion about how RPA can benefit organisations, their customers and their staff.
Existing organisations cannot afford to ignore robotic help
As digital upstarts undermine established brands and businesses, these empires must strike back. Creating opportunities for existing employees to equip themselves with new skills to perform higher value-added roles that better utilise their human gifts, giving customers that little something extra to delight and inspire them to come back, is one way to do this.
Make no mistake, I see RPA as a transitional technology. In due course, end-to-end digital transformation of business and operating models will radically streamline work processes and procedures, rendering some of these invisible robots redundant too. In the meantime, the massive business benefits of RPA can be rapidly banked by organisations with strong, candid leaders who can have honest conversations with staff, talking them on the digital journey alongside their virtual colleagues.