RPA and AI – the same but different

In early December, as Consulting Director of Symphony Ventures, I attended an RPA conference run by the Institute of Robotic Process Automation (IRPA). For an event that was meant to be all about RPA there sure was a lot of talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI). Unfortunately, most of that talk only seemed to confuse people about this latest, and most-hyped of, technologies. There were frameworks presented which showed RPA and AI as a ‘continuum’, there were models that seemed to suggest that there was a natural ‘journey’ from RPA to AI, whilst others talked about AI being a ‘must have’ if RPA was to realise its full value. Some presenters talked about a ‘choice’ between RPA and AI. None of which really helped educate the conference attendees on the benefits of either technology. Let’s unravel each of these points so that everyone can be clear on the relationship between RPA and AI.

The RPA/AI Continuum – whilst it can be argued that RPA is the relatively simpler of the two types of technologies, they are very different beasts indeed. The key difference is that the robots of RPA are ‘dumb’ whilst the AI is ‘self—learning’. The robots will do exactly what you tell them to do, and they will do it exactly the same way again and again and again. Which is perfect when you have rules-based processes where compliance and accuracy are critical. However, where there is any ambiguity, usually when the inputs into a process are unstructured (such as customer emails) or where there are very large amounts of data, then AI is the appropriate technology to use because it can manage that variability and, most importantly, get better at it over time through its own experiences. So, if you do want think of a technology continuum, make sure you put a large gap between RPA and AI.

The RPA to AI Journey – there are a number of case studies where companies have implemented RPA and then implemented AI, but only because RPA is a more mature technology than AI. There are far more examples of companies implementing RPA and not implementing AI at all because they actually don’t need the AI. RPA does a fantastic job of delivering labour arbitrage, accuracy and compliance without AI coming anywhere near it. And, of course, some companies implement AI without RPA. It’s not a journey, just a set of choices based on specific demands.

The RPA Dependency on AI – another view that was put forward was that RPA is only valuable when it has AI in support. This is clearly a self-fulfilling view put forward by the vendors that are able to offer both technologies, but it is simply not correct. As mentioned above, many (in fact, most) companies implement RPA without any consideration or need for AI. If you want compliant, repeatable processes, and can feed the robots with structured data, then why complicate and confuse matters by introducing AI?

The RPA/AI Choice – There was yet another view put forward (which actually conflicts with much of the above) that companies need to make a choice between RPA and AI – in other words which is the best one for them to implement that will deliver their objectives? As should be clear by now, the two technologies actually complement each other very well, for example by using AI to structure unstructured data at the beginning of the process, by using the robots to process the transactions, and then potentially using AI for decision making and/or data analytics at the end.

So, why all this confusion and mis-information? Part of it is obviously self-interest from vendors and providers to create frameworks and models that align with their own capabilities and marketing messages. And, although RPA is now pretty well defined (with that badge of maturity: its own acronym) some of the confusion surely arises from the multiple terms used to describe artificial intelligence; AI, cognitive computing, machine learning, NLP, etc. For now, it is much the best approach to think of AI in terms of how it can help your business, without worrying about what to call it. As the technology develops though a more robust approach is required, which is why at Symphony Ventures we are working on an ‘AI taxonomy’ that will clarify the different types of AI, and therefore help to explain the practical opportunities and uses for AI in our clients. I look forward to sharing this with you and de-bunking much of the confusion around RPA and AI that we have seen over the past few months.

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