Robotic Process Automation is used to augment the existing workforce and automate complex tasks usually performed by white collar workers. The technology is gaining ground quickly, and that has both proponents and critics making predictions. Mihir Shukla is CEO ofAutomation Anywhere, one of the largest RPA players in the world. He says automation will make us more human and could bring about the next industrial revolution.
Greg: Let's start with the big picture. What is Robotic Process Automation, and why is it just being recognized as a transforming force in the economy?
Mihir: You see robotics happening across world, Google with its self-driving, factories using automation, drones--so those are all examples of hardware robots and they get the attention. What's happening is that the software bots--and we don't call them robots because people think a robot is physical--but the software bot revolution is equally exciting if not more so.
A software bot is a general purpose software program that you can teach to do something. Take the example of invoice processing. In a week or two a software bot will learn how to process those invoices at your company and begin doing it by itself. In that sense it behaves like a robot, but is software. In the next 5-7 years we will have ten million of these in the market. So this is a huge wave, and it will transform the very basic definition of how we work and at what efficiency. It will transform what productivity means. In fact, software bots will arguably have a bigger impact than hardware robots.
Greg: Give me some other examples of a software bot in action. How are they actually used?
Mihir: So we get used in three distinct areas. One is on very high end workforce augmentation. You have a very expert guy using a software bot to do more than he thought possible. The second is the back office. Invoicing is a good example. Third is the front office, customer-facing scenarios. So let's look at the first and third.
One example of the first is the hedge fund guy. He has a highly specialized skill. What he's doing in his job is figuring out how the events of yesterday affect the future price of whatever commodity you give him. He starts his day at 7:00 and looks at various events and data points in world. If some product has come on the home page of Amazon, it means it's going to sell in the millions, and that may have an impact on the downward supply chain. This guy collects data like that, puts everything into an Excel sheet, has figured out various rules to apply, and makes his call.
We look at that and say that a big part of what he's doing is very robotic. So we automated that process. Now when he comes to work at 7:00, he opens his computer and it says, based on what you told me, you should do this. Previously he would be at that point at 2:00 in the afternoon. Then he says, okay, now let me see if there are new emerging trends I haven't considered, let me talk to five people, let me see if there are other variables. He's doing the next level of work. That's amazing to me. So when I look at the before and after scenarios, before he feels more robotic to me, but after he feels more human to me.
Greg: So software bots free up the hedge fund guy to do higher level "human" functions?
Mihir: Yes, and this example is a very highly paid individual. But we can see the same thing with a customer service rep. We looked at video of a service rep to understand how he's behaving. Before, when a call comes, he's not really paying attention to the customer. Because you know what he's doing? He's typing. He's checking to make sure he's in the right field, that he's entering the right amount, that he's on the right screen.
But after you automate those processes, he's anticipating the customer's needs. You can see it in the video, he's upselling, he's delighting the customer. Again, same result, whether it's a hedge fund guy or a customer service rep. When you pull people out of having to type between two screens to do more worthwhile stuff, the work gets better.
Greg: So productivity skyrockets. Do you see any fear of us reaching a tipping point when software bots are actually causing large-scale unemployment in white collar sectors?
Mihir:Change is hard, and we shouldn't be naïve about it. But there are two components here. One is productivity, which we all understand will be there, and the other is about progress. I often give people the example of a construction site. If you pass any construction site today, you will see highly specialized machines. Cranes, fork lifts, bull dozers, and people working alongside them. Ultimately it is going to be about robot human partnership. And if you look at that construction worker, productivity is through the roof, and that allows them to construct things we never thought possible. That's progress.
Greg: I still wonder if that necessitates a contracting workforce, though. I'm not a technophobe, far from it, but credible people have raised this fear that when so few people are needed in the workforce, we're going to reach this point economic calamity.
Mihir:I think it's a question with multiple answers. It would be naïve to say there will be no impact on jobs. Every technology creates winners and losers. When the internet came along we didn't need travel agents. It's part of the price we're all willing to pay for progress.
But at a high level I don't think it will impact us as much as some seem to think. As the cost of a supply goes down, the demand will increase. Simple macroeconomics, right? And it will ultimately create more jobs. I do think that actually saturates after a long time--you can only sell so many iPhones--but I don't think commerce is anywhere close to that in any of the processes aspects. So we'll see growth in employment for the foreseeable future.
Greg: What's next for software automation technology?
Mihir:Cognitive ability will significantly change how the human-robot partnership will take place, and will force us to redefine the workforce and how its structured. Within five years, many execs will look at their workforce and say, I have 100K people, I want to be at 200K people, so I will hire 30K humans and structure them toward a specific kind of work, and I will hire 70K software bots. So now effectively I have a capacity of 200k, that's the productivity I can deliver, and it's a combination of people and software bots. Software is already defining the workforce today and that will certainly accelerate.
I think ultimately that will create an immense benefit almost to tune of the industrial revolutions we have seen in past. My argument is, if the first one or two industrial revolutions created the middle class, software automation will create something of that magnitude.