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What work might look like when we all have robot assistants

(Image credit: Image Credit: Computerizer / Pixabay)

Early in the history of Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen set the goal of a computer on every desk and in every home. In retrospect, it sounds unambitious, and obvious that we should all have a computer – just think of the irreversible manner in which it has shaped our communication and our lives, both in and outside of the office, and you will understand why computers are now ubiquitous.

But at the time, of course, it was a bold idea and a lot of people thought they were out of their minds to imagine it was possible. After all, the average price of a house in 1975 Britain was £10,388, with the computer costing £6,966. You would have needed a second mortgage to get one. Yet Gates and Allen thought they could get one in every home – and they did.

Fast-forward 45 years and there’s a new vision for technology in our lives and at work: a robot for every person. We’re not talking about humanoid robots, unsteadily tottering about trying to do the cleaning, or drones efficiently delivering parcels.

We’re talking about software robots. The type that can use a computer just like you or I. A digital helper who can “see” what’s on the screen and complete simple, repetitive tasks like responding to basic emails or copying and pasting information from one place to another to keep records up-to-date. The technology behind software robots is called Robotic Process Automation (RPA). It’s our vision and we’re focused on making it a reality.

At first glance, the thought of a software robot for every person might sound as unlikely as the ambition to get a PC on everyone’s desk. Yet, just like the speed at which Microsoft’s vision became a reality, so too, is ours gaining pace.

RPA is quickly entering workplaces across the UK and capturing the imagination of CIOs, HR professionals, finance department heads, and more. Newspapers are writing about software robots and unions are thinking about how they might affect the workplace. This isn’t something that’s going to happen in the distant future. It’s happening now. In not too long, new starters at work will get a laptop, mobile internet, a phone… and a robot. In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the use of software robots with many now being common, in companies of all sizes and across multiple sectors.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a robot

But what does a future where everyone has a software robot look like? Without having experienced working alongside one, it’s hard to know what they actually do and how they might help. This is perhaps the biggest problem the creators of these automations – like UiPath – face. It’s hard to “get” what we mean when we talk about software robots.

For that reason, I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues to find out what they’re doing. Arif Khan, a customer success manager uses robots all the time. During lockdown, he’s been working from home like many of us. In doing so, he prefers a large screen on his desk rather than having two or more smaller ones. This presented a problem when it came to video conference calls.

When he shared his screen, the resolution meant that people at the other end of the conference line would see everything really small. He therefore had to change the resolution ahead of every call. A small, yet irritating manual task that happened multiple times a day. To resolve the problem, he created a software robot to do this for him with the press of a button. The robot also paused Slack and email notifications for him, preventing the constant pinging we often hear on these calls. Of course, the robot was also there to undo the process when the call finished.

Jan Van Eijck, another of our customer success managers, has digital assistants that help him better serve customers by getting a head start on his working day. He begins the day with a robot setting his Slack status for him without having to log in. He also has one that helps him collate all his daily meeting notes and add them to a system so colleagues can see records of customer interactions. Another robot collects information about which customers have asked for assistance so he can quickly see which ones need a response.

The most recent one he’s developed is a software robot that collates information and sends Jan an email outlining how satisfied his customers are, what issues he needs to deal with and what opportunities there may be to offer additional help and advice. The robot does this right at the start of the week, so when he sits down on a Monday morning he has a clear view of what he needs to do. No more scrabbling around to write a “to-do” list for the first half hour of the day.

Simply brilliant

It turns out software robots are pretty simple to build and quite straightforward to use. They’re not frightening. They’re not complicated. They’re not taking our jobs from us. They’re just little helpers that can do simple tasks and enable us to accomplish much more that we would without them.

Of course, we’re not limited to these simple activities. The possibilities are endless. In the healthcare sector we’ve seen software robots that can undertake complex tasks, such as organizing, interpreting, and validating medical documents submitted by patients for automated patient analysis and enrolment into medical programs.

But when it comes to each and every one of us making use of a digital assistant, there are countless ways in which they could help us. And when they’re all added up, they can save us hours over the course of a month. In fact, if a digital assistant saved each of us just 20 minutes a day, that’s about two weeks of time a year. With 32.92 million people aged 16 years and over in employment, that could bring about a huge productivity boost for the UK, helping us become more focused on the important things.

These assistants are brilliantly simple and simply brilliant. Just imagine a world where we all had one. Where we could delegate drudgery to our digital buddies. We could let our software robots take on the tedious tasks, freeing us to do the jobs we were hired for. The world of work wouldn’t look a great deal different, but it would certainly feel a bit less stressful and dull.

Chris Duddridge, Area Vice President & Managing Director UKI, UiPath

Chris Duddridge, Area Vice President and Managing Director of UKI, UiPath.