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Automation: What Is It?


A toy robot with a wrench on his head.


​Automation refers to the use of electric or mechanized processes to perform work without, or with reduced, intervention by humans.

It comes in three varieties: robotic process automation, cognitive automation and social robotics, says Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson and co-author of the book Reinventing Jobs: A Four-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

Robotic process automation (RPA) automates high-volume, low-complexity, routine administrative white-collar tasks. At a call center, for example, RPA is optimally used for requesting customer identification information and tracking the status of a delivery. Other tasks, however, such as talking a client through his frustration with a faulty product or mishandled order will, for now, remain in human hands, Jesuthasan says.

The call center example highlights that automation tends to advance not by eliminating jobs but by eliminating particular job functions at which humans are inefficient, inconsistent or exposed to risk, he says.

Automation of this nature―such as cleaning greasy restaurant grills, moving dangerously heavy pallets of products or crunching vast reams of numerical data―is often valued by workers. However, if you remove enough related functions, entire positions can be eliminated.

Cognitive automation takes on more-complex tasks by applying capabilities like pattern or language recognition, Jesuthasan says. For example, the Amazon Go retail store in Seattle has no cashiers and no checkout lanes. Customers pick up their items and exit as sensors and algorithms automatically charge their Amazon accounts. Human store associates still handle other elements of the job, including advising in-store shoppers about product features.

Social robotics involves robots moving autonomously and interacting or collaborating with humans through the combination of sensors and artificial intelligence (AI). A good example of this is autonomous driverless vehicles. Even in this category of automation, humans are not completely out of the picture, Jesuthasan notes. They still observe the driverless operation and step in to assist with unusual or dangerous situations. They also help “train” the AI system to learn from new situations.

Read The Automation Revolution to learn how automation is changing work, while simplifying workers' routine activities and helping companies provide next-generation services.

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