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Five Things to Know About How AI Can Boost Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

By Elissa Gootman

RPA is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and growing. A technology that creates and uses so-called “software robots” to supplement human work, RPA is a critical part of the automation process. Software robots can free human workers of the most repetitive, potentially mind-numbing computer tasks—and help solve middle-of-the-night IT problems that might otherwise cost companies millions of dollars. As businesses worldwide turn to these software robots to increase productivity, efficiency and resiliency, RPA is estimated to be a $10.7 billion industry by 2027.

Given the potential of this automation capability, Michael Gilfix, IBM’s Vice President for Cloud Integration, explains what you need to know about the relationship between RPA and artificial intelligence (AI), and how RPA is going to transform the future of work.

1. The real power of RPA is unleashed when it’s paired with AI.
Without the use of AI, RPA can be used to complete tasks that involve predictable steps. And without the use of RPA, AI insights must be driven to people to take action. But when RPA is paired with AI capabilities like natural language processing, unstructured content extraction and exception handling, the potential for enhanced productivity is enormous. This is one of the main drivers for why IBM acquired Brazilian RPA provider WDG Soluções em Sistemas e Automação de Processos LTDA (referred to as WDG Automation throughout). WDG Automation’s “click mining” technology can observe a person, then recommend where to apply automation. By integrating such capabilities into our IBM Cloud Pak platforms, starting with IBM Cloud Pak for Automation, we’re going to be able to give our clients a complete, end-to-end solution, where they can digitize all aspects of their business operations in one place.

2. COVID-19 has accelerated demand for RPA that draws on AI.
During the pandemic, dynamic customer demand, market disruption and widespread remote work have increased demand for the intelligent automation of both back-office and customer-facing operations. Take the example of government. Many government processes and documents have simply not been digitized. Think about all the things that required you to go to your local government office, fill out paperwork and have someone process it on the spot. In a world where you can’t do that, there are massive delays in basic services. RPA is an excellent tool for maximizing the benefits of document digitization. When documents are digitized and brought online, software robots can drive users to self-service options and reduce processing overhead. This aspect of RPA is leading a lot of people to look at automation who weren’t looking at it before.

3. As businesses emerge from the pandemic, RPA will become more—not less—essential.
As the pandemic continues amid a climate of great uncertainty (economic and otherwise), digitization and automation will be central to companies’ ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and to scale sustainably. Take, for example, the airline industry. As air travel starts to pick up again, how can airlines scale their operations back up in a way that protects them from another wave of the pandemic? What if they bring on too many staffers, and travel once again drops? Airlines can use RPA to help manage through this uncertainty, by using software robots to supplement the work of customer service representatives. While IBM has partnered with companies specializing in RPA (and will continue to do so), the WDG Automation acquisition will help our clients identify new opportunities for automation, accelerate the deployment of bots and further streamline workflows.

4. In business operations and IT, the potential for RPA is vast.
IDC predicts that, by 2024, enterprises powered by AI will be able to respond to customers, competitors, regulators and partners 50 percent faster than those that aren’t using AI. RPA is a critical component of this looming sea-change. In the IT space, RPA has great potential for cost savings. When an IT system breaks down, maintenance and downtime costs can escalate quickly. Pinpointing the root cause is hard, and once you do that, engaging a human operator (who might need to be paged, if it’s off-hours) introduces further delay. With RPA, certain types of problems can be quickly resolved by the software robot.

5. RPA is poised to reinvent work, as we know it.
More broadly, RPA technology will allow people to ask themselves, “If I could use my time differently, what would I do?” Tons of us have to do many menial tasks that aren’t what we really want to do, or what produces value. They’re not what we’d put on our CVs to describe the value we add to our organizations. That’s the power that RPA brings: It enables people to use their time differently, and thus create substantially more value.

For more on IBM and WDG Automation, see Michael Gilfix’s blog, “Why IBM Is Acquiring This RPA Provider and What’s New for CxOs with Automation Initiatives.”

IBM’s acquisition of WDG Automation closed on July 20.