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Future of Work: Robotic Process Automation and Human Roles

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July 29, 2016
Robot: The future of work, including financial advising, with robotic process automation

In the movie Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin comically looked at the rise of machines taking over jobs and found that technology has its upsides and downsides.

Chaplin filmed automation’s impact on the assembly-line worker, but in the 21st century, automation is making inroads into areas like back-office administration. The rise of robotic process automation (RPA) is even worrying some financial advisors.

“At present, most capabilities are focused on RPA, which is broadly defined as software tools that execute repeatable, clearly defined tasks traditionally performed by humans,” said Derek Toone, managing director at Alsbridge, an outsourcing consultancy. “These tools can be taught to execute intricate and specific tasks, but when they encounter an exception or anomaly, they can’t reason or learn from experience.”

Can a Robot Do My Job?

In the automation space, key players include IPsoft, Blue Prism, Arago, and Automation Anywhere, Toone said. Technology service providers like IBM (IBM), Wipro (WIT), and Infosys (INFY) are developing their own automation platforms.

Data collection is a big benefit from RPA, Toone said. It allows for more accurate, precise, and auditable data than equivalent data collected by humans. This can help make it more efficient for banks and pharmaceutical firms to comply with regulatory standards. Retailers use these tools to review customer data, allowing for more targeted marketing.

In fact, automation may make more inroads than we imagine. A 2015 study by McKinsey suggested that “as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” Even high-skilled, high-paying jobs such as financial managers, physicians, and senior executives have a significant amount of activity that can be automated, they added.

Human and Machine Working Together

The future looks to combine RPA with cognitive tools, Toone said, citing how banks are considering new marketing plans.

“For example, a new mortgage customer is a prime candidate for other services offered by a bank. Cognitive tools can connect the dots between the buyer’s profile—kids, debt, etc.—and additional services such as college savings plans and credit cards,” he said.

So what does this mean for jobs for mere mortals? There’s a lot of fretting about how automation may kill employment, just as Chaplin worried about it in 1936.

Wesley Higbee, consultant at Full City Technology, takes an optimistic view, not surprisingly.

“There will always be work to do. The type of work will change, but automation isn't stealing jobs. Automation, when successful, affords time to invest in things we'd otherwise not be able to tackle.  Another reason I know there will always be work to do is because very few humans are content doing nothing. We will find things to fill our idle time. We're in no danger of obviating the need for humans,” he said.

Toone said his firm is seeing more redeployment and retraining rather than displacement.

“What’s happening is that, rather than replacing a 100-person department, automation will eliminate 40% of the work of each individual in that 100-person department. So, while companies may be slower to hire more staff, we’re seeing many businesses take advantage of that added bandwidth to build productivity,” he said.

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