What’s Happening: Recent advances in AI and machine learning technology have created algorithms that are capable of outperforming white-collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers at certain parts of their jobs. Though these college-educated and highly specialized workers once felt impervious to automation, bots are increasingly learning how to execute high-value tasks and are now climbing the corporate ladder.
The Download: Though this trend, called “robotic process automation,” has been slowly building for years, it has accelerated greatly during the pandemic. Unassuming software programs with names like “Auxiliobits—DataTable To Json String,” are becoming star employees at American companies. Many of these tools are user-friendly downloadable apps installed by corporate IT departments, while others are costly custom software packages designed with sophisticated AI capable of doing cognitive work that once required teams of highly paid humans.
UiPath, the largest standalone automation firm, was recently valued at $35 billion and plans to go public later this year. Others, such as Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere, have seen unprecedented growth, with tech giants like Microsoft recently launching new automation tools.
The C-suite is taking note—according to a 2020 Deloitte survey, 80 percent of corporate executives have implemented some form of automation in their business while another 16 percent planned to do so within three years. Though they often spin automation as a way to “streamline operations” while liberating workers from mundane tasks, they often precede rounds of layoffs, suggesting that cost-cutting measures are usually the driving force behind adopting the technology.
In Their Own Words: “It’s not a moonshot project like a lot of AI, so companies are doing it like crazy,” Craig Le Clair, an analyst with Forrester Research who studies the corporate automation market, told the New York Times. “With robotic process automation, you can build a bot that costs $10,000 a year and take out two to four humans.”
Surface Says: The robots are here, but they’re not seeking world domination—they’re simply approving expense reports and reconciling bank statements.