There is no shortage of predictions about how artificial intelligence is going to reshape where, how and whether people work in the future. But the grand work-changing projects of AI, like self-driving cars and humanoid robots, are not yet commercial products. A more humble version of the technology, instead, is making its presence felt in a less glamorous place: the back office.
New software is automating mundane office tasks in operations like accounting, billing, payments and customer service. The programs can scan documents, enter numbers into spreadsheets, check the accuracy of customer records and make payments with a few automated computer keystrokes.
The technology is still in its infancy, but it will get better, learning as it goes. So far, often in pilot projects focused on menial tasks, artificial intelligence is freeing workers from drudgery far more often than it is eliminating jobs.
But all the signs point to much more to come. Big tech companies like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are starting to enter the business, often in partnership with robotic automation startups. Two of the leading startups, UiPath and Automation Anywhere, are already valued at more than $1 billion. The market for the robotlike software will nearly triple by 2021, by one forecast.
“This is the beginning of a wave of AI technologies that will proliferate across the economy in the next decade,” said Rich Wong, a general partner at Accel, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and an investor in UiPath.
The emerging field has a klutzy name, “robotic process automation.” The programs — often called bots — fit into the broad definition of artificial intelligence because they use ingredients of AI technology, such as computer vision, to do simple chores.
The companies and government agencies that have begun enlisting the automation software run the gamut from General Motors and Mastercard to the Defense Department and NASA.
The market for AI-enhanced software automation is poised for rapid growth, but that expansion, analysts said, will ultimately bring job losses. Forrester Research estimated that robotic automation technology by 2021 will be doing the equivalent work of nearly 4.3 million humans worldwide.
“These initial bots will get better, and the task harvesting will accelerate,” said Craig Le Clair, an analyst for Forrester. “For workers, there will be a mix of automation dividends and pain.”
Lohr writes for the New York Times.