I’m not not talking about the Terminator trilogy, and this is not a hostile takeover, but I am talking about every day activities in your own office. Robotic Process Automation (or RPA) is here and it’s going to take over. Yesterday you hadn’t heard of RPA and in 18 months you won’t remember the pre-RPA era. Many are referring to the fourth industrial revolution and this is where it’s at.
The first industrial revolution took place in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of the steam engine. Suddenly a machine could replace the labour of many men. Textiles could be mass produced and while a few got rich the rest gained better clothes.
The second industrial revolution in the pre-WW1 years saw the rise of the steel and oil industries, and with them, easier access to energy and its delivery through electricity. The internal combustion engine meant that machines could move – and that moved power into the fields – from the fields the increased agricultural productivity could be transported easier into the towns and cities and, again, benefited the masses.
In the early 80’s the rise of computers became the Digital Revolution and the workplace was to change forever. Complex calculations could be made in seconds rather than weeks and computerisation meant data could be stored more easily; the proliferation of the internet suddenly gave everyone better access to information – and to each other. The internet has helped facilitate the migration of labour into the international market and our friends in India, China and elsewhere have been diligently working on our behalf at a fraction of the cost.
We are on the cusp now of the next phase – arguably we’re already in it. You’ve heard about Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3D printing, driverless cars, the internet of things, bioengineering and robotics. They’re coming soon – they are in development… actually they are already here. Some of them have been around for a while but you’ve known about them by a different name.
The big secret is not so big at all. As with each previous revolution it started somewhere; the early adopters end up the biggest winners, the money-makers, the 1%. For years I have been using macros to automate mail-merged emails and repetitive tasks in a spreadsheet; in the FIN-TECH sector traders have been using high-frequency-trading to buy and sell stock quicker than their competitors and many of those off-shore outsourcing organisations have been using robots to do the work you thought you were getting done by our friends in the East.
RPA is maturing and it’s been given a name. At a recent event I sat with a group of my peers in the bar afterwards and we all suggested “It’s only a macro… it’s nothing new" but the big difference is that it’s mature and it’s accessible and it puts the control back into your own hands. A ‘robot’ can do the work of many humans but if can only (for now) automate according to the rules you give it. Computers can’t exercise judgement (yet) but they never get bored – give the robots all the jobs you don’t want, and shouldn’t be doing, and do something more fulfilling like making decisions and making a difference.