An entirely new approach to automating worker and business activity is emerging with stunning speed. Two days spent in Miami Beach at the first global customer event for a fast-growing startup called UiPath underscores the impressive progress of a technology called Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. Watching it gives new insight into what’s happening as automation and robotics spreads further across society.
(A disclosure: UiPath is a partner of Techonomy. I was at the event to moderate two sessions. However, my enthusiasm for what I learned is genuine.)
So what is RPA? It’s the automation of frequent or routine computer-aided tasks previously performed by a person. The software, as developed by UiPath, leverages key technological advancements in computer vision technology and artificial intelligence.
All of us do certain things on our screens over and over. For some workers, repetitive tasks constitute a large portion of their time. Think of operations like call centers, insurance underwriting offices, and bank loan departments, as well as company back office operations like human resources, finance, and purchasing. Much of the work performed in such workplaces is repetitive and unrewarding, like entering data, running reports, reconciling inconsistencies in multiple applications or databases, updating contracts, and similar activities. Companies and even many workers want to automate as much of such work as possible. But there are scary elements of this for people who would rather have a sometimes-boring job than no job. We’ll get to that in a minute.
There were people at the event from scores of major companies that have embraced this technology in just the past year or two. More than one Fortune 500 IT executive told me that “people are lined up outside my door wanting to use this.” Yet some of those same executives say that they don’t accede to many of the requests, because they are still developing the governance, security, and oversight needed for a methodical deployment of what is essentially a new way of thinking about computing in the enterprise.
RPA comes into an organization two ways–the business can decide which processes to automate, purchase the licenses, and carefully design automation routines that it rolls out to groups of workers. Alternatively, and here RPA is like only a few other enterprise applications, individual workers can download a free version of the software, install it themselves on their computer, and just start automating parts of their own daily work. With a little practice, ordinary workers, not just IT professionals, can automate their own tasks.
RPA also has virtues over human work. It is by definition auditable, something that matters in many industries, and doesn’t make errors, except when it has been improperly programmed. Believe it or not, some companies at the event even said they were considering how to manage these “bots” as a new kind of employee.
Daniel Dines, the Romanian-born founder and CEO of UiPath, likes to talk about the need for a new “automation first” mindset in business. “We feel automation is a product,” he says. Up until now, companies have sold it more as part of a larger process or service.
Dines spent 20 years as an engineer and executive at Microsoft before quitting in 2005 to return to his native Romania and develop this product, mostly with local engineers. “If Bill Gates said ‘a computer on every desk,’” he said in his keynote, “our vision is a continuation of this idea, to have one robot for every person.” He sees everyone, in business and outside it, as having the need for these capabilities. For many of us, just thinking of a robot as nothing but software functionality is a leap. The idea that we will all be routinely using them takes even more getting used to.
But then Dines and colleagues come out with other statements that sound compelling. “Humans are not designed to type,” Dines said in his keynote, “but to talk. The bots will type for you.” (Dines will speak at Techonomy 2018 in November.)
And some demos shown on screen jarred me further. For example, an auto insurer can enable a purely autonomous AI-assisted process that receives and assesses photos of a car that’s been in an accident, calculates the cost of repair, and sends an email to the claims adjuster and the customer. Another demo showed software, entirely unaided, make a decision to extend a personal loan to an individual, calculate the interest rate and all the terms, then communicate it all back to the applicant. In such cases the software also can open and record the customer interaction in other applications or databases, as it did with Salesforce in several demos.
What will become of the workers who previously did this work? Every company I spoke to at the UiPath event said it went to lengths to reassure employees that its goal in installing RPA was not to replace them. The argument repeated often, including by UiPath, is that everyone should want employees freed up to spend more time with customers and do more creative and gratifying work. But several IT leaders also conceded that no matter what the intention and what companies say, upon the introduction of software robots intended to remove elements of an employee’s work, their first reaction is often going to be an assumption that I am at risk of being replaced. Apparently companies that have previously outsourced back office tasks to lower-wage regions are beginning to be able to eliminate some of that outsourcing as they implement RPA. As for what happens to employees at home, the proof will be in the pudding.
The numbers UiPath’s executives share about its growth suggest something unusual is going on. Its product was first released in early 2016. That year the company had revenues of about $3 million. In 2017, growth soared to around $45 million. Now executives expect the annual revenue run rate to be in the range of $200 million by the end of this year. The company says it went from $0 to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in less than 21 months. That’s considerably faster than both Slack and Salesforce, the previous record holders by most accounts.
There is no question that implementing this technology is going to pose major challenges to existing organizational structures and corporate cultures. Yet one UiPath executive said something that resonated deeply with me: “An improved employee experience is key to digital transformation.”  Digital transformation is the holy grail for just about every company these days, so this could be another reason you may soon hear a lot more about RPA.