OPINION: Robots And Humans – Friend Or Foe?

Robots robotics bots robotic process automation

In these turbulent times, with an increasing focus on costs and digital transformation, business leaders are looking at ways of transforming their businesses and in some cases, wondering if robotics is the solution they are looking for. Could robotics be the sweet spot of digital transformation?

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), to give it its full title, is productivity software that sits on top of existing systems and performs manually repetitive and rule based activities traditionally performed by individuals. 

The robotics industry is still in its infancy, but there are already many players vying to help businesses with their transformations, from the developers of the robotic software to those who help implement/configure the robots and others still who help businesses project manage the change. There are many successful case histories which can be accessed on line. 

Many businesses are well down the path of RPA so can you afford not to at least consider the benefits? 

According to the Gartner “Hype Cycle” robotics are at the “peak of inflated expectations” stage, which presumably means that there are many ups and downs to be experienced before they are common place in every office in the UK. 

The technology for RPA is now mature and developments are now being made in the more advanced areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These may well be the areas which will have the greatest impact on the workplace. 

Rise Of The Robots

Some of the statistics being quoted are quite staggering – 15 million jobs in the UK, at present performed by humans, are in danger of being performed by robotics – according to the Bank of England. Another study conducted by the BBC claims about 35% of current jobs in the UK are at high risk of computerisation over the next 20 years. The sort of jobs mentioned as being most at risk include bookkeepers, junior lawyers, Insurance claim processors, data entry, billing, payroll, certain areas of medicine, care workers and many more. Of course the role of dealing with exceptions and customer liaison will at least for now be handled by humans but in the future these roles could also be automated through AI. 

Of course robots are not just being used in offices, they have been used in car manufacture for years and apparently in Australia they have designed a robot which can build a house! Driverless vehicles, which could put 8 million truck drivers out of a job in the USA alone is another example of this technology, ready to be put into mainstream operation. 

We have also seen more advanced applications with intelligent machines beating grand masters at chess and other complex games. 

Also, with the advances in drone technology and the internet of things where machines communicate with machines without any human intervention, the possibilities are endless. Technology is no longer the barrier but the speed of adoption by humans! 

There are many advantages to robotics as a means of transformation:

  • Easy and fast to implement - implementation can be a matter of weeks not months or even years as in some large scale change projects 
  • Requires little or no changes to existing technology infrastructure
  • Low initial investment
  • Short payback period – 12 to 18 months

Costs & Efficiencies

The cost saving potential is huge as most estimates are that the ongoing cost of a robot or bot will be approximately 10% of the equivalent staff member in the UK or 1/3 of the cost of a typical offshore staff member in for example India. Of course businesses are finding that the cost of staff in some low cost locations are starting to increase lowering the benefits of being located there. Could the large scale adoption of Robotic Process Automation, result in the bringing back to the UK of some or all of the activities offshored over the last two decades? Large UK organisations have placed manually intensive, repetitive operations, such as finance and IT, offshore to make use of the difference in the unit cost of labour in the UK compared to say India (labour arbitrage). 

The use of robotic software can also result in higher levels of accuracy and compliance, which in certain industries is becoming more and more important as regulatory authorities clamp down further on the unfair treatment of customers. 

Also, scalability is enhanced which could help businesses who operate around the globe and want to serve customers around the clock as the bots can operate 24/7 and the addition of further robots is straight forward and cheap once the process has been automated once. 

So improved business efficiency can certainly be achieved by Robotic Process Automation and many manual, repetitive, low level tasks can be automated eliminating the need for people to complete these boring! tasks so they can concentrate on higher value adding tasks. Sounds great, but for many professions and organisations these are the entry points for junior staff who will then graduate to higher level roles allowing natural progression through the ranks. If this layer of the workforce is removed how do future staff enter the organisation in the first place? 

The Impact On Society

As well as the business efficiency angle there is also a public policy angle which we are not yet seeing much debate about in the political classes (although Tony Blair and Nick Clegg have written articles on the subject recently).What is the economic, social and societal impact of taking all of these jobs out of the economy and how will the subsequent economic gains be shared among the citizens of the UK as a whole?

Will this exacerbate the feeling of being left behind by globalisation and automation which we have seen highlighted by certain voters in last years Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump win in the American Presidential election? Some suggest the solution is a Universal minimum wage for all, whether employed or not – there was a referendum on this topic recently in Switzerland. Or will the reduction in employment be balanced out with the addition of new and different roles being created, facilitated by the new technology with employment levels remaining roughly as they are now? 

We have the opportunity to think about this now before we go full steam ahead! But the window to do so will only be open for a small time. Robotics could dramatically reshape the type of economy and society we have in the UK. Maybe even more so than Brexit? One result could be less need for migrant labour. The one thing you can be sure of is that if there is a competitive advantage to be gained from the introduction of RPA then companies will do it. So, we need to have a plan as a society to handle the potential fall-out. Whether it is dealing with higher unemployment levels or massive retraining of the workforce. 

In my view, exciting and scary at the same time. 



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