The growth in corporate robotics feels rather like an overnight trend, but automation using robots has been changing the manufacturing industry for at least three decades. The difference today is that robotics is no longer restricted to factory production lines. Automation today is far more advanced than a machine capable of spray-painting car parts.
The reality in today’s environment is that several technologies are blending together to create new possibilities and solutions. Robotics, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence are naturally connected because automation no longer has to just be the simple repetition of programmed bots – we can now ask the system to learn how to get better.
The IBM Watson system is a great example of this. Watson is capable of reading 800 million pages of data a second. This capacity to absorb new information constantly makes it incredibly useful for complex environments that are constantly changing. Cancer diagnosis is a good example because a traditional doctor will train for many years and then will work with patients in a hospital so their capability to absorb new research is limited. By training real doctors to work with AI systems such as Watson we can support and enhance them – allowing doctors to access a second opinion that includes knowledge of all published research.
Softbank in Japan has connected their Pepper ‘general purpose’ robot to a Watson ‘brain’ creating the possibility for intelligent assistants that actually have a physical form. It’s easy to imagine nurses treating patients with Pepper offering additional advice, or a bank advisor explaining a mortgage to a potential customer and Pepper offering further information and automatically checking compliance to legal regulations.
But this convergence of technologies is not taking place at the same speed in every company, or even in every industry. EWeek magazine recently summarised five important trends that give a good oversight on the growing importance of robotics in industry today:
- Most companies are not yet using Robotic Process Automation (RPA), but are noticing those that are using it; Capgemini research suggests that 39% of companies are already using RPA and many are talking of extremely positive results – such as a reduction in repetitive work and an improvement in quality. The companies that have not yet tried RPA are noticing these reports and will move quickly.
- RPA works best when used to create a Centre Of Excellence (COE); RPA requires a cultural change so it helps to create a mindset that you are not just automating existing tasks, rather the plan is to improve how the company works.
- Once companies explore RPA they deploy it everywhere; companies that have piloted RPA initiatives find that it is not just useful in the back office – automation can be deployed everywhere.
- Human jobs are changed, not eliminated; as with the Pepper examples, in most cases RPA enhances and improves what humans can do rather than just eliminating their roles. In research published by McKinsey, they estimated that around 90% of work functions cannot be automated 100% – the role of automation is to increase quality and productivity, not eliminate humans from the workplace.
- RPA plus AI will lead to new cognitive opportunities; by created automated systems that can learn we are entering a new cognitive era of business. Research by OpusCapita suggests that 81% of executives believe that this combination of RPA with AI will significantly change their business inside the next 5 years.
This highlights two extremely important – and opposing – points. Executives mostly (81%) believe that automation and AI is about to dramatically change their business, perhaps even their entire business model. However, only a minority (39%) of companies have already launched an RPA project.
It’s clear that this is where the future lies for companies across all industries so the future seems bright for service companies with expertise in both these areas. I even think that the 5-year time horizon is rather long – in my opinion this will all change before 2020. RPA and cognitive systems are about to change your business forever – are you exploring the possibilities today?