‘The Beginning of a Wave’: A.I. Tiptoes Into the Workplace

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There is no shortage of predictions about how artificial intelligence is going to reshape where, how and if people work in the future.

But the grand work-changing projects of A.I., like self-driving cars and humanoid robots, are not yet commercial products. A more humble version of the technology, instead, is making its presence felt in a less glamorous place: the back office.

New software is automating mundane office tasks in operations like accounting, billing, payments and customer service. The programs can scan documents, enter numbers into spreadsheets, check the accuracy of customer records and make payments with a few automated computer keystrokes.

The technology is still in its infancy, but it will get better, learning as it goes. So far, often in pilot projects focused on menial tasks, artificial intelligence is freeing workers from drudgery far more often than it is eliminating jobs.

The bots are mainly observing, following simple rules and making yes-or-no decisions, not making higher-level choices that require judgment and experience. “This is the least intelligent form of A.I.,” said Thomas Davenport, a professor of information technology and management at Babson College.

But all the signs point to much more to come. Big tech companies like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are starting to enter the business, often in partnership with robotic automation start-ups. Two of the leading start-ups, UiPath and Automation Anywhere, are already valued at more than $1 billion. The market for the robotlike software will nearly triple by 2021, by one forecast.

“This is the beginning of a wave of A.I. technologies that will proliferate across the economy in the next decade,” said Rich Wong, a general partner at Accel, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and an investor in UiPath.

The emerging field has a klutzy name, “robotic process automation.” The programs — often called bots — fit into the broad definition of artificial intelligence because they use ingredients of A.I. technology, like computer vision, to do simple chores.

For many businesses, that is plenty. Nearly 60 percent of the companies with more than $1 billion in revenue have at least pilot programs underway using robotic automation, according to research from McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm.

The companies and government agencies that have begun enlisting the automation software run the gamut. They include General Motors, BMW, General Electric, Unilever, Mastercard, Manpower, FedEx, Cisco, Google, the Defense Department and NASA.

State Auto Insurance Companies in Columbus, Ohio, started its first automation pilot project two years ago. Today, it has 30 software programs handling back-office tasks, with an estimated savings of 25,000 hours of human work — or the equivalent of about a dozen full-time workers — on an annualized basis, assuming a standard 2,000-hour work year.

Holly Uhl, a technology manager who leads the automation program, estimated that within two years the company’s bot population would double to 60 and its hours saved would perhaps triple to 75,000, nearly all in year-after-year savings rather than one-time projects.

Cutting jobs, Ms. Uhl said, is not the plan. The goal for the company, whose insurance offerings include auto, commercial and workers’ compensation, is to increase productivity and State Auto’s revenue with limited additions to its head count, she said.

Ms. Uhl said her message to workers is: “We’re here to partner with you to find those tasks that drive you crazy.”

Rebekah Moore, a premium auditor at the company, had one in mind. Premium auditors scrutinize insurance policies and make recommendations for changing rates. They audit less than half of the policies, Ms. Moore said.

The policies that will not be audited then have to be set aside and documented. That step, she explained, is a routine data-entry task that involves fiddling with two computer programs, plugging in codes and navigating drop-down menus. It takes a minute or two. But because auditors handle many thousands of policies, the time adds up, to about an hour a day, she estimated.

Article from: nytimes


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