Anybody who has worked in an administrative role can attest that certain types of office work are dull or tedious. Filling out standard forms, data extraction, and processing simple data can certainly be unstimulating. These are also fairly standardized activities, and it’s increasingly possible for these tasks, and others like them, to be done by software robots.
This type of software is known as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and it watches a human do a task and then learns how to repeat it. These helpful bots can perform all manner of activities. You’ve probably interacted with a chatbot or an interactive voice response system that utilizes RPA technology without realizing it. You may have done business with a corporation, such as Sprint, that has incorporated RPA bots on a larger scale.
Predicting the future is an imprecise task, but it’s already clear that RPA will become a more important part of the typical work process in the coming years. According to the New York Times, automation software sales are increasing by as much as 20 percent each year, and projections of the number of workers who will be affected by automation by 2030 are now being revised upwards.
Interestingly, a recent study suggests that the jobs most exposed to this technology – in that they consist of tasks that RPA can do – are held by white-collar, college-educated workers. This may be because many highly-skilled workers still perform tasks that can be broken down into machine-learnable parts. These tasks include reviewing financial documents, underwriting, or reviewing tests. They require an education to do well, yet are also simple enough that software can be trained to do portions of it.
While the capabilities of bots are always increasing and improving, the technology can’t do everything. Many RPA programs are limited to recognizing a single type of input, such as a standard invoice, and would struggle if faced with multiple formats. It is not a cognitive system, and bots will have to be replaced as processes evolve.
Additionally, while bots are currently focused on performing particular parts of a larger job, they are not currently able to replace an entire person whose job involves tasks with varying degrees of complexity. While these bots might be able to read a medical test with greater accuracy than a human doctor, they can’t do everything a doctor can. It is possible they never will. Even when working at simpler tasks, RPA bots still often need to be supervised to ensure mistakes aren’t made.
It is entirely possible, and perhaps even probable, that for the foreseeable future, RPA will be applied to parts of a job, such as filing invoices, more often than being applied to the entirety of a position, such as replacing an administrative assistant. One study suggests that this is how RPA has been deployed thus far, as does this article from the Harvard Business Review. This could be the best of both worlds, with productivity increasing while humans spend their time doing work that is less robotic.
This is not to say that nobody has lost their job to RPA or that nobody will, only that the current applications and many of the ones on the horizon appear to be complementary to human labor rather than a replacement for it.
RPA will certainly be an important part of work processes moving forward. But exactly how much work it will overtake, and how many people will lose their jobs entirely, remains to be seen. Whatever happens in the future, it is already clear that an increasing number of mundane tasks are indeed being done by robots, which frees humans up to work on other tasks.