Every technology company wants a slice of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) pie. More accurately, every tech company wants to show that it has a healthy AI development stream bringing the benefits of Machine Learning (ML) to bear across its software stack. A key part of that artificial (and real) intelligence quotient today is focused on so-called Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
As a practice, RPA is focused on being able to automate a user’s most repetitive computing tasks. At its most basic, RPA is little more than ‘screen-scraping’ i.e. a computer program dedicated to watching a user’s interactions with icons and input fields on a screen in order to be able to emulate those steps as a pre-programmed single method, when instructed. At higher levels, RPA is more intelligent and more intuitive as it starts to also take on an appreciation for business logic and more complex levels of operational complexity. This is where RPA is headed… and this is why it’s often now called iRPA, with the i standing for intelligent.
Where many technology vendors now feature extensive AI technology divisions, UiPath specializes in it. The company, as detailed by Forbes’ Alex Konrad here, is an RPA purist focused on supporting end-to-end automation processes inside organizations. From UiPath’s perspective, effectively engineered RPA is the road to AI itself in business.
But as with so many technologies, implementing ‘some’ is comparatively straightforward – and implementing ‘lots’ (i.e. at a wider enterprise scale) is challenging. This is because what works well on one (or just a few) computers doesn’t always work well on many. When we scale up, we need more pipeline space for all the data to flow through, we need to be able to accommodate for user peaks and troughs cost effectively, we need to be able to shoulder interconnected computing tasks that require much higher degrees of networked analytics, we need to be able go one louder without blowing out the amplifier, basically. This is one of the key aspects of making RPA happen in the real world that UiPath has set out to tackle in its latest platform release.
Automation as an application
The latest RPA offerings from the company promise to provide an ability to scale automation initiatives at speed – all from a single platform. In its latest software release, UiPath is ‘delivering automation as the core application’ for users across the enterprise, enabling potentially every user, regardless of their technical proficiency, the option to automate part of their work without the need for developer resources or coding.
Automation as an application then? Yes. So when you need a word processor: your application is Microsoft Word, LibreOffice or Google Docs. When you need a database: your application is SAP, Oracle or the smorgasbord of open source offerings in this space. When you need a data visualization tool: your application is Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, or perhaps Sisense. When you need automation: well, you get the picture. That being said, UiPath obviously has its competitors and the company comes up against Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, Nice and EdgeVerge Systems as competitors on the quadrant.
“When people ask me why RPA has experienced such explosive growth, I say: because it works. When you look at some older applications such as VisiCalc, these technologies were complicated and often created more work. By contrast, RPA is designed from the start to make work easier. But if you look at our business and how we have grown and differentiated ourselves as a company, we are probably marked out because we did everything wrong as a startup. We had no direct vision for our RPA technology proposition when we started and we were just focused on creating Software Development Kits (SDKs) at the time. What we did was build our RPA technology because we were just interested in the product as software engineers, not because we had a formally identified go-to-market strategy. If I ever build another start up, I may follow a more traditional route to development and first identify a customer base and then fail-fast to refine and create the final product,” said UiPath co-founder and CEO Daniel Dines.
The last mile of getting any product to the user in a form that they can truly benefit from is the hardest… and Dines insists that the firm did get that part right from the start. He has further stated that in the ‘automation first’ era, automation is the application – and Dines thinks that we’re at the tipping point.
“We are excited to now deliver on this potential, enabling continuous human-robot interaction, transforming complex processes that span multiple applications and multiple systems of record and delivering real business transformation,” added Dines.
The UiPath RPA platform
The UiPath Platform has so far featured three key components: UiPath Studio (a designer tool), UiPath Orchestrator (software that acts as an overseeing ‘control tower’ and helps implement security) and UiPath Robots (tools that work both attended and unattended software robot bots). Going forward, the company is looking to apply RPA and AI to more complex processes.
New products from the company include the UiPath Explorer product family. This is software designed to accelerate process (as in work processes) understanding and the creation of automation pipelines. The product is built on some of the new technologies that UiPath brought to bear when it acquired ProcessGold and StepShot. The technology here works to identify, document, analyze and prioritize work processes, with an ability to understand both front-line and back-end operations, through scientific and visual analysis.
Other new additions to the platform include UiPath StudioX for Citizen Developers. StudioX allows subject-matter experts to automate work without the need for developer resources or coding. Another new addition, UiPath Apps works to enable continuous human-robot interaction across entire processes. With the software, end-users can participate in real-time with robots executing unattended processes, allowing users to manage approvals and exceptions; a capability UiPath refers to as Human-in-the-Loop (HITL). Also here, UiPath Insights provides embedded analytics that measure, report and align RPA operations with strategic business outcomes.
Also in terms of products in this set, UiPath Connect Enterprise works to bring every employee into the process of uncovering automation opportunities. The company says that building a pipeline of automations should not always come from analyzing user activity or system logs, but from human judgement. With this tool, every employee can introduce ideas for automations or create a gamification capability, which is said to be ideal for creating Robotic Operations Centers of Excellence to collect opportunities. Finally then, UiPath’s AI Fabric software claims to be able to break down the barriers between RPA and data science teams and helps customers operationalize and consume their machine learning models directly in RPA workflows.
“We have essentially removed all barriers to scaling in the ‘automation first’ era. Business leaders everywhere are augmenting their workforces with software robots – freeing employees to spend time on more impactful work,” said Param Kahlon, chief product officer at UiPath. “With the addition of the UiPath Explorer, UiPath Apps and UiPath Insights families, we are making it easy for more business professionals across the enterprise to interact with robots, including [less technical] citizen developers, business analysts and end-users throughout both the front and back-office. “
What RPA needs next
So RPA is truly fabulous and are all of our working lives now going to get so much easier really soon? Well yes and no. The technology is here, but humans have got to get used to human-robot interactions… work processes inside real companies have got to shape to these new advantages and that won’t happen overnight… and we need to assess which elements of work we should still connect human-to-human rather than human-to-robot.
Humans have an endorphin boost when they do something different. Scientists recommend that we do something different every day, or drive home on a different route or simply put our watch (if we still wear one) on a different wrist. If we free ourselves from the mundane elements of work through automation then, in the theory at least, we can experience more positive endorphin rushes.
Human beings have got to ‘want’ RPA for it to work — and they have to want it not because they’re lazy, they need to want it because it improves job satisfaction and allows them to do other higher value work. Without that transparency and purity, automation isn’t intelligence, it’s just robotics and machinery… and we’re already past that part of the industrial revolution.