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The robot takeover is inevitable

Proactive speaks to a leading mind in the field of artificial intelligence to talk about the latest developments in robotic process automation.

A robot arm clutches a human skull
"I wish to add my might towards the most effective use of mankind.”

Blue Prism (LON:PRSM) was hailed as the champion of British robotics after a phenomenal recent debut on London’s junior market.

Investors clamoured to get a slice of the promising new technology group and the listing brought in £10mln, as robotic process automation became the hottest new development on the scene.

According to Deloitte, the global market for robotic automation is expected to reach $5bn by 2020.

A third of financial services business surveyed by Deloitte said that automation was a top priority, and is estimated to reduce the cost of onshore processes by 65% by replacing human workers.

Award winning computer scientist and expert in the field of artificial intelligence, Professor Moshe Vardi believes that all work that is repetitive and routine will inevitably be automated within the next few years.

Vardi, professor of computer science at Rice University, Texas and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, lectures on the rise of robot workers.

So who better to explain the rise of the machines and help us understand the potential of Blue Prism’s robotic process automation (RPA)?

What is RPA?

“Robotic Process Automation (or RPA) is an emerging form of clerical process automation technology based on the notion of software robots or Artificial Intelligence (AI) workers.

“It is not a new development, but the capabilities are getting better every day.

“For example, in the last few years, UK telecoms firm O2 has replaced over 100 workers with a single piece of software, which can now handle many customer-service functions, such as SIM swaps, porting mobile numbers, migrating from prepaid onto a contract, and the like.”

Which areas are particularly open to automation?

Vardi points to work done by students at the University of Toronto.

The team have programmed an automated legal application they’ve dubbed Ross, the super intelligent attorney.

Ross builds upon existing language and cognitive programming to predict the outcome of court cases, assess legal precedents, and suggest readings to prepare for cases.

“Any work that is routine can and will be automated. For example, some legal work, such as litigation and creative and non-routine, but see how Ross is automating routine legal work.”

The students essentially taught Ross as though it were a human law student. They uploaded volumes of legal documents and used experts to calibrate answers.

But the potential of the application lies in its ability to learn. It gets smarter the more it is used.

What are the key benefits of automation over human workers?

“Automation may require a significant level of initial investment, but in the long run machines are always cheaper than humans. In certain areas, machines are even better than humans.”

In the US, for example, the futures markets are highly computerised, able to react to trends and trade in milliseconds, making the human trader almost obsolete.

Are there any jobs robots are unlikely to takeover?

“Robots cannot yet handle non-routine work, but the boundary of what is routine and what is not routine keeps moving.

Google’s Deepmind, its artificial intelligence arm, created AlphaGo to play the complex ancient Chinese game of Go against human players.

The team ‘taught’ the programme by showing it thousands of games by expert human players, thus engineering an artificial intuition.

“Just last week AlphaGo beat a world-class Korean player, Lee Sedol. The breakthrough was that the program was taught to play by "intuition.

“It will not take long before this kind of machine intuition is applied to RPA.”

Experts believe it will happen within the next decade.

What does the future hold for robotics?

“Silicon Valley companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and others) are investing $20bn per year in robotics R&D. It is the hottest technology area in the Valley.”

After Sedol’s defeat, South Korea also pledged $3bn for artificial intelligence research and development.

“Progress is going to be fast. Deep learning, the technology that underlies AlphaGo's victory, is revolutionizing many areas of AI.”

What are you working on at the moment?

“I am working on algorithms for machine learning. In particular, I am developing techniques for searching very large and very complex spaces.

“At the same time I am very concerned about the social impact of displacing millions of workers.”

He warned that now was the time to consider what robotic automation means for our future.

We face major changes within the next few decades, much more in reach than other obstacles future generations may deal with, such as global warming.

Will robotic innovation free humanity and allow us to fulfil our potential, or does it mark the end of mankind altogether?

These questions are nothing new.

But Vardi cites Ada Lovelace, the 19th century pioneer of early computing.

She once wrote:

“Far be it from me to disclaim the influence of ambition and fame, I wish to add my might towards the most effective use of mankind.”

Quick facts: Blue Prism Group PLC

Price: 1326 GBX

Market: AIM
Market Cap: £1.24 billion

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