The more robotic office work becomes, the easier it will be for bots to take over

Software robots are getting smarter and more capable, allowing them to automate much of the work done in offices.

Why is this important: Bots can make digital work more efficient by taking on onerous and repetitive white-collar tasks, but the better they get, the more they compete with skilled workers who might have thought themselves exempt from the disruptive effects of automation.

How it works: Think of bots as robotic assistants, working in the background to simplify and streamline some of the less exciting but necessary aspects of digital work: scheduling meetings, approving expense requests, and probably somewhere, submitting triplicate TPS reports. , in the “Office Space” style. .

  • The industry at large uses the faceless term “robotic process automation” (RPA), which perfectly describes the mundane nature of what bots do, while masking just how huge their impact could possibly be.
  • “When people think of automation, they think of real robots,” says Kevin Roose, New York Times tech reporter and author of the new book, “Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation.” “But RPA is a huge industry that nobody knows about, and it’s really accelerating.”

By the numbers: A recent Gartner report found that enterprise software spending is expected to grow 8.8% to $505 billion this year, with much of the money going to RPA and other forms of software. digital work automation.

  • The forced shift to remote working has accelerated the trend – in a Deloitte survey last year, 73% of global executives said their company was investing in intelligent automation, up from 58% in 2019.
  • UiPath, a global leader in RPA, announced a $750 million fundraising round last month and is currently valued at $35 billion, with plans to go public later this year.

Be smart: Not all robots can be classified as AI, but they are getting smarter and smarter. And while artificial intelligence can’t yet handle general tasks that humans can perform in the workplace, machines can be very good at automating specific tasks.

  • The more the digital workflow in the modern office becomes robotic, i.e. divided into discrete and repeated tasks, the more room there is for bots to take over.
  • A single intelligent bot cannot completely replace, say, a human HR worker, but over time bots will likely be able to perform more and more of the tasks that make up that worker’s job.

The context: Ideally, better bots should be able to free up human workers to focus on the more creative and productive aspects of their jobs, in the long tradition of time-saving automation.

  • Last year, Workato, a $1.7 billion smart automation startup, introduced its Autopilot package, which integrates bots into popular collaboration platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams to help employees working at home during the pandemic.
  • “It’s not a human imitation,” says Vijay Tella, CEO of Workato. “It’s more systemic” – additive to human labor, rather than purely substitutive.

Yes, but: There’s no doubt that the most brutal form of RPA is designed to replace human labor where possible – which over time as bots improve could include some that assumed that they were free from the effects of automation.

  • Researchers from Stanford University and the Brookings Institution examined AI-related patent data and found that better-educated workers in analytical-technical and professional roles were at greater risk from the disruptive effects of AI. ‘artificial intelligence.
  • Robots aim to bring efficiency, and efficiency can be used to free up resources for future growth – or it can be used to reduce payroll.
  • We will probably see both.

And after: Human workers can’t compete with sleepless bots when it comes to efficiency, but they have interpersonal skills that no machine can match.

  • “We had a bad idea of ​​the skills that will be at risk,” says Roose. “We should have prepared people to do things machines can’t and differentiated ourselves from AI with those deeply human skills that are hard to automate.”
    • Imagine a lawyer who builds lasting relationships with his clients, rather than a lawyer who is content with contracts and files.

The catch: Much of the modern office workflow seems designed to downplay these same skills, a trend that has only been spurred by the shift to remote working, a trend where fellow employees are no longer flesh-and-blood humans. os but “points in a Slack channel”. notes Roose.

The bottom line: What can be automated will eventually be automated, and much of the digital work that many of us spend our hours doing falls precisely into this category.

Jose C. Birney