Job losses versus freedom: where's the real RPA?

RPA firm Blue Prism has parsed RPA sentiment to provide an interesting take on automation perception and fears

For PR people at firms with a strong artificial intelligence or robotic process automation component, the well-aired concerns over technology causing swingeing job losses must be a pesky irritation that never goes away. On the one side are the journalists and others who suggest that AI and RPA are such powerful phenomena that they will wipe out swathes of employment opportunities, leaving human society to either recalibrate, create new jobs… or suffer. On the other side are the technocrats that suggest that we have always seen waves of new technologies and other catalysts and new roles have been created, often taking millions out of needing to perform dull duties. AI and RPA will do the same they say, liberating many from quotidian, brain-numbing employment and creating a new, upskilled generation.

Of course, there are a smaller number in the middle that provide a more nuanced view but still, AI and RPA have a PR problem.

"There's a lot of focus on human and rightly so," acknowledges Chris Bradshaw, CMO of Blue Prism, a leader in RPA. "Anytime you see the word ‘robot' [people are concerned]. Automation has been around since the dawn of man and the pace of automation has been increasing for three decades. The flipside is that it's true that when automation comes along, human beings still have a role."

Bradshaw's argument is a textbook answer among technology proponents and it's certainly true that there have been technology-induced memes in the past, many of which have turned out to be largely unfounded. Forty years ago, Bradshaw notes, there was lots of chatter about "the paperless office" but office automation led to a boom in printing on paper, knowledge workers and information sharing that continues to this day.

And it's true that as some professions and jobs have receded or disappeared, alternatives have come along to take their place. In my native UK, walk down your local high street and while there will no longer be chandlers and candlestick makers, but it will be awash with baristas, hair stylists and tattoo artists. Coal mining, shipbuilding and steelworks have almost gone but IT workers, marketers, ad executives, contact centre workers and others have ballooned in number.

However, the AI/RPA concern is that automation replaces large volumes of jobs in similar fields. Clerical roles and driving account for huge numbers of workers. Can we really be confident that they will be offered something else? And if not, what happens to our economy and society?

Despite his allegiance, Bradshaw is refreshingly candid on this sensitive point.

"To be perfectly honest, there's another side of me that says whether I do it or we [Blue Prism] do it, it's going to happen. A digital worker that can do a task that a human can do, will do it better and without error. The future state is where we all work alongside digital workers like [human] workers with robots on an assembly line."

Again this is a textbook defence of the new world where your new co-worker is a bot doing all the dull jobs you hate (processing emails or taking calls about lost credit cards and mortgage applications) thereby allowing you to do more fulfilling tasks only (for now at least) manageable by human beings. Bradshaw says he has seen company NPS scores rise by eight points because staff can spend more time with customers. It's possible of course and you can argue in line with Bradshaw that a Nissan worker in Sunderland works hand in hand with his or her robotic cohorts.

A happy medium

Bradshaw also feels the digital sector could do more to sand the edges of the bot/human dichotomy through education and training.

"The IT industry hasn't done a good job. The framers and creators of tech are guilty of not thinking through the unintended consequences of their responsibilities," he adds, pointing to areas such as smartphone and social media addiction.

He acknowledges that AI and RPA supporters can sometimes present "a Pollyanna picture" and the current situation is one where there's "a lot of buzz and a lot of pontificating". But he says that the workers he meets don't seem to be resigned or defeatist and there are drudge work tasks that they will happily jettison.

He even has data to support this because Blue Prism, to its credit, has conducted research, titled Automate or Stagnate: The Impact of Intelligent Automation on the Future of Work, on exactly the ticklish questions we have been talking about. While there is obviously an element of ‘they would say that, wouldn't they?' about this, I found the numbers believable.

The global poll of about 5,000 business decision makers and knowledge workers suggests 83 per cent are comfortable with the need to reskill to work alongside digital workers while 78 per cent of knowledge workers said they are ready and willing to take on new roles. But the fact that this is still an area where perceptions vary according to role is underlined by the 70 per cent of decision makers who believe that employees fear ceding their jobs to automation, versus the 37 per cent of employees who say they have that fear. That's quite a chasm between perception and reality.

And of course, for many, whether they know it or not, automation has already changed their working lives: 78 per cent say they have seen some daily tasks automated over the previous 12 months. For those that are interested, there is a lot more interesting data in the report here (PDF).

The claims and counterclaims about the effects of automation will doubtless go on for a long time yet and, ultimately, we can't know the scale nor the effects of what comes next. But there will doubtless be upside along with downside and Bradshaw says that the longer-term question for business leaders must be about the impact of all this advanced automation. So it's wise for entrepreneurs to think differently about building new businesses that begin with the assumption of bots and people working in tandem.


Also read:

Soft bots propel Blue Prism to RPA elite

Automation Anywhere CEO want us all to have ‘a bot for that'

UiPath leads march of the software robots