Understanding AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA): Trends and Challenges

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Also see: Top RPA Companies

It's no exaggeration to say that the RPA sector – Robotic Process Automation – is a red hot market. Gartner research identifies RPA as the fastest growing sector in all of technology. Many of the top RPA companies are growing rapidly. 

Yet despite the benefits of RPA, confusion abounds in the sector. The very idea of having software robots working alongside humans is new, and some companies have struggled to get real ROI. The element of artificial intelligence raises myriad questions. To add clarity, in this webinar we'll discuss:

  • Why RPA has become the fastest-growing enterprise software category.
  • How AI technologies are being combined with RPA, and the various impacts.
  • The most important attributes of intelligent automation technology in today’s market.
  • The remarkable future of AI and RPA.

Please join this wide-ranging discussion with three key thought leaders in the RPA sector.

Download the podcast:

Below are edited highlights from the discussion.

1) Why has RPA become the fastest-growing enterprise software category? (7:58)

  • Kirkwood: "So originally, we went to see Blue Prism, which is a British company, in fact, they founded, they created the RPA market and category. And then we went to see a small band, and I mean small, it was only seven people in Bucharest in Romania for a company called a Desk Over, and realized, the technology they got could actually be applicable, and so that's what the team used, and the value of that was so great that I had a road. Well in fact, David and I had a 'Road to Damascus' moment and realized that this was the future of automation. Desk Over became UiPath, David set up an organization to do the implementation of RPA, I joined UiPath originally as Chief Operating Officer, and now it's Chief Evangelist."
  • "Why is it moving so fast? A, it's luck, being in the right place at the right time, and B, it has the flexibility to allow an organization to do a lot of the transformation stuff. And we'll be careful about what we say about the value of RPA as a transformational tool, but [companies] find it easier to do the transformation stuff, using RPA or at least, make their operations more efficient."
  • Poole: “What happened with RPA was the ability to have a step change, where you could get much bigger savings for the right processes, not every process, but the right processes, you could get really big step changes. And the other reason I think an RPA is been so successful is that it's what I call a generic tool, you can use it pretty much on any process that's applicable for automation, you can use it in any industry and its application is really broad, you can use it, literally, anywhere that a human would be doing a manual process, you can apply RPA."
  • "And I think that's quite unique and even today as we look at the artificial intelligence space, there's not any tool that is as broad as an RPA tool in terms of its application. And for me, that's been the real power of RPA and the reason it accelerated so quickly, because everybody could find a use case for it, if they tried hard enough."

2) How will the new work environments of ‘remote everything’ impact, challenge or accelerate the adoption of RPA and intelligent automation (10:41)

  • Cox: The big change is around how work's gonna happen, just going forward, so many of the boundaries are fallen down here. There used to be tight boundaries around where people work. Obviously those have gone. We're all at home now, yeah? There were tight boundaries about when people worked. Guess what, now that we've all got assorted other jobs going on in our lives, like looking after our kids, those have changed and actually the boundaries around what people do have been torn up as well, and I think that's where there's gonna be a lot of excitement and really rapid activity around RPA and intelligent automation around COVID because as you've seen it, teams need to flex all around the world.

Maguire: So as Kit mentioned, COVID and the new reality of remote work can accelerate RPA. How do we implement this?

  • Poole: "And I think a lot of organizations have been kicked out of inactivity because there's nothing like a good crisis to drive change and innovation. So I think we're in that mode now where the pace of change is important and the scale of investment is also important because people are not gonna be thinking about big EP transformations or big system changes and so on."
  • “So as you mentioned earlier, I think the challenge for RPA in some ways has been that people just struggle to find the right use case. And it's a shame because frankly, there are a lot of really good examples that are fantastic transformations that have been led by an RPA implementation. And there are plenty of advisors out there that know exactly what makes a good RPA implementation against a bad one."
  • "So really what it comes down to is a lack of imagination as to what the art of the possible is. And I think often we find people just not ambitious enough and I think in the work that we've been doing with our clients around resilience and a lot of their discussions have been, "Oh, if only we'd gone a bit further. If only we'd actually completely automated the billing process rather than just part automating the billing process."
  • Kirkwood: "We're seeing an increase in the sales and in the organizations that are adopting [RPA]. What we're tending to see is that there's a bifurcation in the market, so those organizations that had already started and implemented RPA and internal automation or what got a called Hyper automation. They've seen the value of it, they've achieved really good returns on the investment.”
  • "Those organizations that haven't started, to Dave’s point about being little more timid, those companies that are particularly more on AI rather than RPA – they haven't achieved their returns in investment or they're just starting, they're putting everything on hold."

Maguire: "Will the Microsoft purchase of self-demotive help drive RPA into smaller businesses?"

  • Cox: "Yeah, it's definitely gonna drive into that. It's gonna be talking bifurcations, there's gonna be a really interesting bifurcation in the market around it. There's those who are deploying RPA for transformational change and looking at the whole services and the whole end-to-end automation spectrum. I'm not sure if the Microsoft purchase is gonna have a big impact on that. But there's the other RPA use case, "The robot for every person" kinda use case. Which is all about individual productivity and desktop productivity and lesser Microsofts are owned for yet the last 20 years and they're gonna get real focused on that."
  • Kirkwood: "First of all, I think that Microsoft moving into the market is a vindication that we're moving in the right direction. The RPA market is still nascent, it's still small, it's really only taken off in the last four years, so for Microsoft to come in, make a purchase of a self-demotive and then drive into that market is a great... A great, great vindication of the potential."

Maguire: Have there been some serious hold outs among the IT crowd, and people have looked at RPA and said, "This is not proper technology?"

  • Kirkwood: "Oh, absolutely yeah, I went to a Gartner conference in March 2018. The audience was fairly evenly split between those who were awfully ignorant about RPA, and most were just actively hostile. And because, why on earth use this RPA nonsense when you can do it properly using API's?"
  • "Being the number one trend for 2020, that's a massive turn-around."

3) 18:40 S1: How are AI technologies being combined with RPA and what is the impact? (6:50)

  • Cox: "I think there has been a lot of confusion around how AI works with RPA, and in most cases the RPA vendors in the marketplace...they're  trying to make sure that you can integrate with the big AI providers, whether that's AWS or Microsoft or Google."
  • "So, you think about most of the AI tools that we talk about are owned by AWS, Microsoft, or Google. And really, you can use any of those things interchangeably, they are microservices that you attach to any tool that you can integrate simply with very simple coding or virtually no coding. And, RPA tools just need to be able to, one way or another, connect with those capabilities."
  • "So, basically... I think wherever in the world you need to connect different technologies and you need to manage case work between RPA robots doing things which are repeatable and programmable. Any AI tools which are using especially sort of cognitive capabilities from one vendor or another, frankly."
  • Kirkwood: "To put it bluntly, I got famous couple of years ago by saying that AI is nonsense, only nonsense wasn't the word I used." [laughter]
  • "So, we try to make a little bit more understandable by using words, understanding. So, around RPA, you need the things that allow you to do, as David said, automate processes end-to-end, because RPA can't do that. Which is why Kit's business is been so successful, it's about orchestration."
  • "But the key understandings are; visual understanding, so the system has to understand everything on the screen regardless of where it is on the screen and exactly the same way that you or I do. There is document understanding, 'cause we're still waiting around in paper. So, it has to understand what that piece of paper is and what to do with it.  Third one is process understanding, that's really important."
  • "And last is conversation understanding. Because increasingly everyone's using voice rather than keyboards or chatbots."
  • "And so that combination, what Gartner call hyper-automation, what everyone else calls intelligent automation is our hyper intelligent automation is the combination of those things."

4) 25:27 S1: What’s the Future of RPA? (22:52)

  • COX: "So, I see a couple of things. There's definitely gonna be more consolidation. The really important parts of the future over the next 15, 18 months, are gonna be all about pace, and really focus on rapidity to live and speed to get live."
  • "So I was talking to some economists the other week about... And they produced a report that said across Europe that SMEs, mid-market, big companies, most big companies got an AI strategy. But almost no small business has an AI strategy. And my response to that was, "Well, so my girlfriend's in a gardening business." Yeah? She doesn't have an AI strategy. But she does have a tool that she gives to all of her customers that they can take a photo of a plant and it uses AI to tell them what the plant is. And that's not having an AI strategy, but that simplification makes it consumable, yeah? And that's, yeah. I think taking AI out of the hands of the geeks and into the hands of the community. That's where RPA's gonna be really useful."

Maguire: The democratization of AI and RPA.

  • Poole: "I am convinced that we're gonna see the uprising of the sitting developer, so the non-technical developer that knows nothing about technology but knows about process, knows what they want, but knows nothing about technology. And I'm not sure any of the RPA firms yet are thinking about that, but I think that that is gonna be absolutely paramount here."
  • "It's not ‘do they have an AI strategy?’ They don't know strategy. They really do not know where they're headed. And unless you really know where you're headed and you know what you want to achieve with technology in general, be it RPA or any other technology, you cannot be effective as an organization. And you cannot be investing wisely, because you don't know where you're headed. I mean, it makes sense that if you don't know where you're headed, you don't know what you should be investing in."
  • "So I think there's a lack of strategy as a whole, and that's what we're really focused on and helping companies find their technology path through that. And at the end of the day, you're not necessarily launching huge programs, but thinking about how do you use tools like RPA and orchestration tools to help build, in the next six months, "Can I build something or learn something, or do something that helps me learn about my future state that I'm looking for in my business?"
  • Kirkwood: "We had a plethora of ERP vendors, but it eventually boiled down to two, which was SAP and Oracle. I think exactly the same thing's gonna happen within the RPA market over the next two to three years."
  • "We thought that the TAM, the total addressable market was large enough to support four or five RPA vendors, because as David said, that there isn't anywhere that RPA is not applicable if you do it properly. And [the IDC analyst] said, "No, it's just two. There's just you, or UiPath and Automation Anywhere, at the moment." I think Microsoft will come in. They got a magic product that's coming out, and I can't tell you what the results are yet, but Microsoft is not a leader."
  • "The other thing that I think is gonna happen, and I've been predicting this for quite awhile, is that ultimately, probably slightly longer term, all of the stuff that we've been describing today will disappear. It will just disappear, not because it's not gonna get used, but because it's gonna get used everywhere."
  • "That democratization, that simplicity of use, the fact is embedded in just the way in AI, in the plant-identification that Kit mentioned. It will just become a natural part of our day-to-day lives at work and home. And I don't think there'll be any indication. So when we talk about a robot for every person, at the moment there's a robot for every employee. But actually there isn't any reason why it couldn't be a robot for every person. Automating bits of your life at home for family and so on that you wanted to."
  • "So I think that as organizations recognize that their world is radically changed, not only as a result of COVID but actually being accelerated by COVID, their digital transformation is critical. What you need, as David said, is a strategy to start with, and then RPA and intelligent automation is a tool or tools for that strategy. There is nothing spectacularly special or magical about RPA, in the same way that there is nothing special or magical about shared services and outsourcing 20 years ago. But it just makes things easier and more efficient."

Maguire: Do you believe RPA is the best technology for companies to get started within the world of automation?

  • Cox: So I'm gonna say there are two routes that we see have been really successful in, and it entirely depends what your organization looks like at the point that you get going. The most important thing to do is just do something to get going, full stop, because otherwise you can just be paralyzed by, What should I do? Where shall I start?"
  • "It was, if you're well-controlled, well-orchestrated across the human workforce, then you can go straight into RPA and other automation technologies 'cause you've got the clarity of what's happening there. If you're not well-controlled and managed across the human workforce then start with orchestration process mining, task mining to get that side under control 'cause then your automation will be much more successful and much more rapid."

Maguire: is RPA going write its own RPA?

  • Kirkwood: "Well, it is gonna write its own RPA, but will only follow the rules that are set for it by humans."
  • "Ultimately using machine learning, using other technologies, it will work out what the optimum path is through that route automatically and then write the code for that that will become the robot. So in other words, the person won't have to do anything but they'll just do their normal work and the system will then say... The assistant will then say, "Okay, I can automate this process for you now." That's self-building robots."


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