There’s a joke that goes: “I got drunk last night and sent a nude photo to everybody in my address book. It cost me a fortune in postage.”
The joke here is not that the author sent a nude photo to everybody in his address book; because I’m certain we’ve all sent emails in haste and then wished we could retract them – after all, you simply type and click send. The joke is that the author had so many opportunities to change his mind because he used the postage service. He had to copy that image onto a computer, print a copy of it for every single person in his address book, fold it, put it in envelopes, address the envelopes, put stamps on the envelopes and then walk to the post box and push the envelopes through the slot so that they could be stored and collected by a postman. We all assumed he had simply put it in an email, selected “all” and clicked send.
For centuries, the human race has distinguished itself from most of the animal kingdom by creating tools to make life easier. Why walk when you can cycle? Why cycle when you can drive? Why drive when you can fly? Why post a letter when you can send an email?
There will still be those amongst us that can remember the office typing pool: desk after desk of secretaries typing letters. If you wanted a copy, you inserted a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of paper and then typed. If you made a mistake you either used liquid paper to paint over your mistake or you started again from scratch.
There had to be a better way.
There was; it was called word processing.
From word processing we evolved standard documents that we can edit and then post out. With the advent of business rules, we automated the selection of the standard letters and then inserted the relevant customer details. The letters are all printed, folded, inserted into enveloped and franked by machines. The only human interaction is the postman.
Indeed, jump forward to 2020 and the chances are that in the last few weeks if not months, you have not received a letter that has touched human hands – with the exception of the postman.
Does the Bank Really Care?
That loving letter from the bank that says “we care about you”; no human intervention at all. They have a business rule and a printer that cares about you, but that’s as far as it goes.
The only brown envelope in the pile, that letter from HMRC that says, “give us all your money” and ruined your day; there’s not a single human being there that knows that letter was even posted to you. It’s not personal, you were selected by an algorithm and the rest of the process was automated. In fact, the only human interaction you will get with HMRC is when you phone up to complain about that letter. Remember that. Those people are human, and if you are nice to them then they are much more likely to go out of their way to be nice to you
Robotic Process Automation
So, when we talk about Robotic Process Automation or RPA; what are we actually talking about? Surely, we already have it!
Well, we already have it for performing tasks that don’t involve comprehension – writing letters, printing documents, building cars, operating traffic lights, even the autopilot of an aircraft. All of these tasks follow a set of rules – if this happens then do that – and indeed, business rules have played a massive part in the evolution of IT systems since the millennium.
When we refer to RPA nowadays, we tend to refer more to receiving and processing information, and then responding appropriately. For most of us, these tasks still involve human interaction.
When we receive an invoice, a human being will read the invoice, extract the information and type it into a computer system.
When our business, products or services are mentioned on social media then many companies have whole departments that respond to this.
When we find out we’re about to have a child find and call HR, a person will review the law and company policy and then inform us of all your options with respect to maternity and paternity leave and pay.
AI and Comprehension
But things are changing. The continued growth of AI and services such as Amazon Comprehend now mean that a lot of this can now be automated as well.
Learning algorithms can scan millions of invoices and “learn” how to read them and extract the information. This “knowledge” can then be used to completely automate invoice receipt thru verification and payment.
Social Media posts can be scanned 24/7 much faster than any human can do the job, and the sentiment of those posts can be determined and responded to accordingly.
The moment you find out you are having a baby, you can talk to Amazon Alexa on the way home in the car and she will pass the information on to your employer’s systems. Those systems will interact with you verbally or by email, tweet, or other social media and ask you a number of questions before offering you a range of options and what that would mean for you. By the time you get home, you could already have an email from HR waiting for you that confirms your choices.
Robotic Process Automation is the next step in automation, and with Amazon Web Services, it is already here. It just needs to be embraced.
John Dunning works for 1Tech, an AWS Cloud Partner.