The term Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been in circulation for the best part of two decades, describing automated tools that can carry out process-based jobs in the workplace. In practical terms, that means handing over repetitive, rule-based tasks -- such as copying data from one piece of software to another -- to bots that are able to do the job. This, in turn, frees up the humans who previously had to perform these roles to carry out more interesting work.
But as with all technologies, RPA has evolved considerably during that time. Nor is it done evolving, with new possibilities, frameworks, toolsets, and more developing constantly. In some cases, these future uses of RPA are already starting to be seen in some industries, among early adopters who are pushing the possibilities of automation in the workforce to great effect.
For the rest of us, though, here’s what the future of RPA promises to look like:
More, smarter automation
Robotic Process Automation carries out the dull, repetitive jobs in the workplace. But what we consider to be repetitive tasks changes with time. After all, a couple of decades ago many experts thought that AI would never be capable of driving a car autonomously. Today, self-driving cars have driven thousands of miles on public roads. RPA has come a long way as well. By incorporating elements of artificial intelligence and machine learning toolsets, cognitive RPA and intelligent process automation will -- and already are -- making automated processes possible that would previously have been unimaginable.
Some of these applications include technologies like Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Natural Language Processing (NLP), voice recognition, sentiment analysis, and more. These open up new possibilities when it comes to dealing with more complex and often unstructured data. Where RPA tools have classically been fixed and rule-based, with very little variability, the new generation of cognition RPA tools have superior variability, can parse contextual information, and -- in some cases -- involve continuous learning.
As with RPA, the goal is to augment human workers, rather than replace them. However, it opens up a host of new jobs that, while containing mundane, repetitive aspects, can now be automated rather than requiring humans to carry them out.
New processes to automate
This one is similar, but distinct, from the above. As noted, RPA tools are getting smarter. But it’s also crucial to point out that one of the ways they’re getting smarter is in tools that are able to determine which processes could be automated. These tools can monitor every desktop task carried out by employees and, by using AI to analyze the resulting millions of data points, extract results that will be able to determine promising candidate tasks for automation.
Similarly, “no-code” tools will make it easier to build out automations that are capable of performing these tasks -- even in scenarios where the business user may not be knowledgeable about coding. These transformations, which are already starting to play out, promise to have a transformative effect on the workplace.
Attended Automation, also known as Robotic Desktop Automation, is a slightly different spin on RPA. Where RPA tools carry out tasks on their own (i.e. Unattended Automation), Attended Automation tools sit on a user’s desktop and monitor what they are doing. They can then be used to chip in with suggestions and recommendations when required. This could be anything from on-the-job training for a person learning to carry out a new task or process to ensuring that correct policies and regulatory directives are adhered to. Attended Automation is already part of the RPA landscape. Expect it to get smarter, though.
Greater contextual understanding of a user’s actions, and the ability to chime in with better, more targeted recommendations, will allow Attended Automation to play a larger part of human workers’ daily workflow. In turn, these robot assistants will continue to allow humans to work faster, work smarter, and overall improve their accuracy. Greater acceptance of these tools will also result in them becoming more widespread in the workplace. At present, this is still novel terrain for many companies. Early adopters are taking advantage of the productivity increases Attended Automation can bring. But there is far more that can be done in terms of making these widespread, mainstream tools.
Think about the future
RPA is the future of the workplace. But this isn’t just a future built around technology. It’s a future in which humans are freed up to do more interesting, rewarding, creative work, rather than having to spend hours carrying out time-consuming, necessary, but repetitive tasks. Smarter technology is a means by which this can be achieved. That’s something that’s ultimately going to be good for everyone -- from customers to employees to business owners.