Artificial Intelligence or Robotic Process Automation: The Great Debate

The fear that digital workers will replace flesh-and-blood humans is overblown at best. 

That doesn’t stop it from being a favored subject of popular culture, of course. When we’re not enjoying apocalyptic films about killer robots, we’re hearing people wax poetic about the impending singularity. Artificial intelligence, we’re told, will eventually overtake human intelligence — and when it does, we’ll be rendered obsolete. 

It’s an entertaining thought exercise, certainly. But it is, in large part, based on a significant misconception about what AI is and how it works. There are fundamental differences between how humans think and how machines think, and each has weaknesses complementary to the other’s strengths.

  • The human mind, for instance, is simply incapable of parsing and categorizing large quantities of data at scale, nor are we capable of the rapid calculations that define even the most basic computer. 
  • Machine intelligence, on the other hand, lacks intuition, and is largely incapable of understanding context and emotion without direct human input. 

The notion that one should operate without the other in the modern workplace is misinformed, at best. Nowhere is this more evident than where robotic process automation (RPA) is concerned. Now as when it was first released, many expressed concern that RPA would kill the workforce. 

The reality is that it will do the opposite. To express why, we must first explain the current role of automation in the workforce.

What is RPA?

Many people don’t realize precisely how much manual work is required to manage even a small business. Nor do they realize what that work actually costs. Consider, for instance, that according to McKinsey & Company, 30% or more of all activities could be automated in 60% of occupations, including: 

  • 69% of data processing activities.
  • 64% of data collection activities.
  • 81% of predictable physical activities. 

That’s where RPA comes in. Through RPA, companies are able to essentially assign digital workers to tackle repetitive tasks such as data entry, onboarding, application processing, logging and reporting, or lead recapture. Because employees no longer have to complete these tasks manually, they’re free to focus on other, more productive pursuits.

A business that makes effective use of RPA is more agile than its legacy peers, able to adapt and pivot to changing market conditions with far greater efficiency. Less time and money spent on mundane work means those resources can be funneled towards innovation and growth. More importantly, through RPA, a business prepares itself for larger-scale digital transformation. 

And here’s where we circle back around to the underlying fear. That RPA will eventually become so good at replicating manual work that human employees will ultimately become obsolete. This fear is groundless for two reasons. 

First, per the previously-cited McKinsey report, fewer than 5% of occupations can be fully automated. With the exception of a few rare circumstances, there will always need to be a human actor present. This brings us to our second, more salient reason. 

Traditional RPA technology is both rigid and highly specialized. They also lack built-in agility. They cannot adapt to process changes on their own, making them increasingly untenable where scaling is concerned. 

In light of these limitations, many have looked to artificial intelligence as the true future of workplace automation.

AI vs. RPA

While RPA is constructed based on a set of predefined, clearly-established rules, AI tends to be more dynamic. It can learn, evolve, and adapt to a business’s changing needs. Although AI systems do still require human intervention — Facebook’s increasingly-unstable community standards algorithm and Microsoft’s failed AI chatbot are evidence enough of that — they nevertheless tend to be more robust than RPA platforms. 

This makes them better-suited for processes in which there is a high degree of variance. Payment processing, for instance, is rarely the same each time, requiring a certain degree of active interpretation. A tool that’s strictly rules-based lacks the capacity to perform this analysis. 

On the other hand, one could argue that AI is simply overkill for simpler tasks such as data entry. In most cases, artificial intelligence also tends to be more complex to deploy and implement than RPA, requiring a higher level of technological maturity. Businesses in the earlier stages of their digital transformation journey might thus be unable to leverage it to its fullest extent. 

With all this in mind, choosing between AI and RPA appears to be a relatively straightforward matter. For simpler use cases, deploy RPA. For more complex tasks, AI. As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more nuanced.

AI and RPA Are Not Mutually Exclusive

The truth is that anyone trying to decide between AI and RPA is asking the wrong question. They are not, as one might at first assume, opposed to one another. AI is no more an evolution of RPA than RPA is a simple alternative to AI. 

Instead, they work most effectively when deployed in tandem — a technology fittingly known as Intelligent process automation (IPA). Through IPA, businesses can not only automate rules-based processes, but also tackle more complicated tasks. More importantly, these digital workers have the capacity to not only reduce the workload of their human colleagues, but also greatly improve their productivity. 

Ultimately, much like human and machine intelligence, AI and RPA are better together, and neither is likely to replace the other anytime soon.

Transform Your Workplace With Industry-Specific Digital Workers

When it comes to starting your AI journey — the key is to understand what role you want it to play in your business.

Whether you need a simple RPA solution for a repetitive task or a more complex digital working capable of engaging with your teams — intelligence automation can make a significant difference in your workforce.

Ampliforce works with companies in all industries to create customized digital workers that are designed to grow with your company, its teams, and the processes you rely on to stay competitive.
Are you looking to create industry-specific digital workers that apply directly to the use cases that matter most to your business? Book a discovery call today and see why digital workers should be the first-step in your automation journey.