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The Rise of the Robotic Co-Worker

The Rise of the Robotic Co-Worker
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Robots have long been considered symbols of a better future with machines taking on the tasks people don’t want to do or assignments deemed nearly impossible. Remember Rosie, the household maid on The Jetsons? Think about R2-D2 and his save-the-world tendencies.

Today, the future that many people thought was only possible through television and film is here.

While some of today’s robots resemble Rosie and R2-D2 in their traditional hardware presentation, new types are emerging, designed to address the needs of specific industries or work settings. 

Until recently mainly used to expedite manufacturing, robots are increasingly appearing outside factory floors, in hospitals, labs and offices. To meet the requirements of these varying situations, developers have designed new models, such as soft robots and software robots.

Related: Meet Plantoid, the Robot That Grows Like the Roots of a Plant

Soft robots, made of a material that allows them to switch between hard and soft states so as to squeeze through small spaces, have the potential to assist with space explorations, break ground in the way surgeries are performed and complete certain rescue missions. 

Software robots, on the other hand, are virtual and can perform some of the tasks that administrators and white-collar workers do to help accelerate and automate operational processes in offices. The software robot is “taught” through a flowchart-like interface (without coding) to drive systems of record and follow the business rules needed to complete a process as a person would.

This creates a “digital workforce” which represents a whole new operational, highly scalable, reliable and auditable work capability for businesses. The use of software robots in this context has been called robotic process automation, or RPA. 

Related: This Is What Robots Will Be Doing in 2025

While many people have fantasized about a day when they can delegate chores to robots and let them take the reins when it comes to innovation, the rise of these new breeds has left some observers wondering about their value to the workforce. Many have expressed concern that by taking on core processes in factories, labs, hospitals, offices, robots will make people irrelevant -- and unemployed.

But instead what's resulting with early adoption of these machines is that there's room for both robots and people -- and the combination is enabling an unparalleled level of efficiency, customer service and innovation. 

Take Telefonica, for instance. Under the direction of its head of digital service and transformation Wayne Butterfield, the telecom provider turned to software robotics made by my company, Blue Prism, after fully exhausting other methods of reducing costs while increasing efficiency of the back-office transactions it completes for customers.

While software robots were an obvious choice in terms of speeding up processes and slashing corporate spending, members of the IT department were skeptical. They doubted whether the software robots were capable of accurately completing complex procedures like transferring customers’ SIM card data from old phones to new devices.

But as software robots repeatedly demonstrated their value automating thousands of monthly transactions, the IT department could no longer dispute the advantages of a digital workforce. 

What’s important to understand is that people are still involved in the process. Not only do managers train robots much like how they do for new employees -- teaching them rules and the ins and outs of particular procedures -- but processes can be triggered by a customer or an employee.

For example, when Telefonica customers request certain transactions through the company’s website, requests are submitted via web forms into an email queue, from which the software robots take instructions to execute the relevant processes. The software robots then send texts to the customers noting when a process has been completed and that the relevant internal system has been updated. 

By drastically decreasing the time taken to complete transactions -- in some cases from days to minutes -- the collaboration between software robots and humans at Telefonica has been credited with a significant decrease in call-center queries and improved customer satisfaction. 

Related: People Prefer Robot Bosses, Study Shows

Telefonica is not the only company with teams appreciative of robots for boosting efficiency. According to a recent study at MIT, humans stated that they would be inclined to have a robot boss over a human boss since the robots improve the efficiency of the team and lead to better overall productivity. While the authority of robots remains to be seen, there’s an obvious value to and appreciation for them in the workplace. 

Successful business leaders often say they are only as strong as their teams. When you begin to think of robots as teammates, you can understand them as players that can make companies and industries stronger. So when businesses gain competitive advantage by “staffing” with robots, that could mean higher salaries and a happier (human) workforce. 

This happier workforce could result in employees being able to take on more valuable, interesting roles. No longer tasked with time-consuming, administrative tasks that are excruciatingly dull, humans are freed up to take on more strategic, creative and customer-facing projects. People thrive with this kind of work and thus experience much greater job satisfaction as a result of allocating their former duties to software robots. 

While managers must be wary of unfamiliar aspects of a digital workforce (robots cannot yet understand handwriting), robot colleagues make companies stronger by allowing for the delegation of work based on ability. While robots thrive at completing repeated clerical tasks rapidly, humans can think critically about corporate strategy, interact with people (customers and co-workers alike), deliver empathic service and brainstorm innovative and creative initiatives.

So while contemporary lives might not be exact replicas of The Jetsons or Star Wars, they will soon include the same benefits: less chore-like work and greater opportunities for innovation. 

Related: Why You Should Revolt Against the 'Robot Uprising'