robot decals on a window
According to a new report by Constellation Research, you don't need to look hard to find examples of robotic process automation in the enterprise PHOTO: Max Kiesler

Earlier this month, we asked if robotic process automation was finally here.

R Ray Wang is here to tell you: Yes it is. It's everywhere.

Wang, principal analyst and co-founder of Cupertino, Calif.-based Constellation Research, told CMSWire in an interview that robotic process automation (RPA) exists in practically any business function you can automate with a software robot.

"It's in everything," Wang said. "Anything from customer experience testing, to what’s happening with something like insurance claims testing algorithms. If you can program a software requirement into it, you can pretty much do it."

RPA, Your 'Virtual Worker'

Wang wrote a report on RPA released this month, "Robotic Process Automation: Automation Technologies That Will Transform the Enterprise." It was part of the Constellation Shortlist, enterprise software vendor reports the analyst firm churns out every six months

In the RPA shortlist report, its first in this space, Constellation identified seven RPA "solutions to know": Blue Prism, EdgeVerve, Automation Anywhere, Redwood Software, Thoughtonomy, UiPath and WorkFusion

Constellation researchers determined the vendor shortlists through conversations with early adopters, independent analysis and briefings with vendors and partners.

Constellation defines RPA as technology that "trains software robots to interpret the user interfaces of applications through demonstrative steps." 

"Instead of creating another coding platform for IT users," Wang wrote in Constellation's RPA report, "the software robot emerges as a virtual worker that can be easily configured or trained to perform work. RPA should be code-free approaches that allow configuration through visual process maps and process definitions."

RPA allows humans to focus on "higher-level skills" as they are "redeployed to do more interesting and advanced work."

A Growing Prospect

Ray Wang
Ray Wang

Wang told CMSWire the emergence of RPA in the enterprise is like an "arbitrage of software," in other words, using the price differences between human labor (business process outsourcing) and RPA to a business's advantage.

"It's basically about," he said, "taking what we did with the arbitrage of labor into software."

We should expect to see an increase of activity in RPA in the near future. 

Forrester predicted in its February "Forrester Wave: Robotic Process Automation, Q1 2017" (fee charged) that the RPA market would grow to $2.9 billion by 2021 from a base of $250 million in 2016.

Just as long as the industry embraces cognitive AI enhancements.

"Adding AI to RPA will free it from an exclusive focus on rote tasks," Forrester researchers noted. "AI will account for an increasing portion of the digital workforce, and in the end, RPA will be a small fraction of the overall AI 'cubicle' market spend."

AI's Impact on RPA

Wang and Constellation also see AI having an impact on RPA.

"This is where AI is going," Wang said. "Because if we can start to automate things you normally do we can start to get to the point where we're predicting what is probably going to happen and preventing [things] from happening. Those two become very important."

The future, Wang added, is getting to a point where businesses can "predict and prevent." It doesn't mean, however, that "all the human stuff is going away."

"It's just that," he added, "anytime you have a false positive when you do a test, you say, 'Why did this happen? What's going on?'"

RPA Replaces Business Process Outsourcing

Today, RPA converges with exisiting business process management (BPM) and workflow tools, but buyers can expect more machine learning and AI in the future, according to the Constellation Shortlist report.

Wang calls it "explainable AI." 

Businesses simply want a way to figure out why something happened. RPA vendors are starting to do this, "and that's the beauty of it," Wang said.

RPA will be the replacement to business process outsourcing (BPO), Wang predicted.

"It doesn't mean BPO is going away," he said. "It means the folks that have big BPO operations are going to have to do RPA."