How Today’s Robotic Processes Will Spark Tomorrow’s Digital Assistants

Dan Wellers and Christopher Koch

Blame sci-fi for our obsession with robots. Our fascination with human-like machines has kept our attention on physical bots – think of the still-predominant idea of robots informed by pop culture cues, from housecleaning bots to protocol droids.

But physical robots as agile and dexterous as humans are extremely complex to develop. It’s been a long, slow haul just to get a robot to jump over a small obstacle.

We’ve been focusing on the body, although more action takes place in the mind. Bodies are limited and clumsy; minds are elegant and limitless. We could say that the future of digital transformation is all about the mind.

Freed from the constraints of learning how to navigate their physical world, software-based bots – call them “thinking bots” – are evolving much more quickly than their physical relatives. They’re already making strides in business automation. Soon they will be racing ahead.

Many companies have implemented a basic version of software bots, called robotic process automation (RPA), in which repetitive tasks are automated and linked together in a seamless, automated process, helping human employees escape drudgery to focus on essential work.

The next wave of RPA will be to add artificial intelligence (AI) so that the bots can begin to think and learn for themselves and optimize the heck out of the processes they run. This will power advances like the insane efficiency of a supply chain than runs – and improves – on its own. Bots powered by AI will cause massive enterprise disruption in the near future.

As intelligent RPA improves, we will see an entirely new generation of software bots emerge that supercharge human intelligence. Let’s call them “assistant bots.” If we apply the exponential improvements inherent in Moore’s Law to Siri and Alexa, we could all be walking around the office with what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls our personal “neo-cortexes in the cloud,” a cloud-based intelligence beyond what any individual human could hope to possess.

Enterprises should expect the kind of transformation of work that smartphone proliferation launched in the aughts. Except, this time, the productivity improvements could be much greater, as employees gain access to a limitless supply of knowledge and learning.

The bot way forward

RPA has been around for decades. It’s simple, quick, and inexpensive to implement. Companies that have ventured into RPA applications are already seeing results, according to Computer Economics’ report Technology Trends 2019. Survey respondents, from organizations around the world, reported happier customers; less employee time spent on unrewarding, monotonous work; and improved productivity and accuracy. The responding companies earned back their RPA investment (or better) a year and a half after implementation.

RPA is also a gateway to AI. Companies are combining it with AI to spur digital innovations that will touch every part of the organization.

Indeed, we’re only at the beginning of a bot explosion. We’re starting with bots that perform straightforward, repetitive tasks faster and with more accuracy than humans can.

Soon, added intelligence will enable bots to execute more complex work and augment human abilities. These assistant bots will develop exponentially; their progress is a convergence of developments in AI, machine learning, and, particularly, natural-language processing.

Besides being really intelligent, these bots will also be savvy enough to detect problems they can’t solve and ask for (human) help.

Your mind in the clouds

Intelligent RPA will take us to a new level of digital integration. These bots will be extensions of human intellect. They’ll act as collaborative team members that can suggest ideas and help shape a course of action, backed by both Big Data and analyses of project goals.

Before long, we’ll be living in a world where assistant bots will be part of everyday life. Some of the more advanced projects are coming out of places like MIT’s Media Lab. The Lab’s Fluid Interfaces research group, for example, is working on a project that blends human senses with external devices.

The objective is to erase the line where the human stops and the machine begins. As these technologies build on and complement each other, our assistants will become remarkably powerful. The assistant will become a part of our own intelligence – without barriers.

We’re at the beginning of an enormous opportunity, and RPA is its point of entry. Combined with AI, RPA will propel the next generation of digital transformation. By the 2030s, Kurzweil predicts, “we will merge with the intelligent technology we’re creating,” and by 2045, “we will expand our intelligence a billion-fold.” We’ll all be sharing this intelligence – the closest in the near future we’ll get to where AI will surpass human intelligence and then accelerate beyond us at unimaginable speed, says Kurzweil.

Hopefully, bot bodies will catch up with bot minds. Then we’ll have the best of both worlds – and perhaps even the realization of our utopic sci-fi dreams.

In the interim, we will see assistant bots leading the way to the future.

Read the executive brief Robotic Process Automation: The Dawn of Unlimited Intelligence.


About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures Global Lead and Senior Analyst at SAP Insights.

About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is the Editorial Director of the SAP Center for Business Insight. He is an experienced publishing professional, researcher, editor, and writer in business, technology, and B2B marketing.