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OM in the News: Software Robots for Office Work

March 13, 2018

Software robots have become one of the hottest fads in business automation, as a new wave of AI is poised to sweep through the back-office functions of large corporations,” writes The Financial Times (March 9, 2018). Software robots replicate the routine work humans often do in front of computer screens.

The rise of the bots promises to bring sweeping changes for cubicle dwellers. “Some 4 million in the U.S. are likely to see their jobs taken over by the end of 2021,” says one analyst. Each bot can handle the work it would take 3-4 full-time workers to perform. At $8,000-$9,000 a year in licensing costs, they are a lot cheaper.

But many automation experts say that the majority of these displaced workers will be kept on. Most companies will use the technology — known as “robotic process automation” — to automate only the most tedious aspects of back-office jobs, then retain the staff to work alongside the bots doing more interesting things. (There has been particular interest in Japan for the robots, given demographic trends that point to a coming shortage of workers).

Supporters think that applying machine learning to data could give companies important new insights into their operations. The automation software is also a natural place for bringing other types of AI into companies. Once a routine task is automated, it often makes sense to “plug in” an AI service from a third-party — for instance, using a vision system to analyze signatures as part of a bill-paying process. One insurance company, for example, has used bots to automate some of the work of 1,500 people who process new insurance requests, while also tapping into 3rd party “cognitive service” software to help make underwriting decisions.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Do you agree with the industry analyst’s comment regarding the 4 million jobs?
  2. Provide other examples of how office robots could make for higher productivity.


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