Software robots have become one of the hottest fads in business automation, as a new wave of AI is poised to sweep through the back-office functions of large corporations.
Software robots replicate the routine work humans often do in front of computer screens. As software applications have taken over mainline business processes, many back-office workers find themselves filling the gaps between fragmented systems, often acting as the glue in an unthinking information workflow.
The rise of the bots promises to bring sweeping changes for cubicle dwellers. Some 4m of these people in the US are likely to see their jobs taken over by the end of 2021, Each bot can handle the work it would take three or four full-time workers to perform. And at $8,000-$9,000 a year in licensing costs, they are a lot cheaper.
The bots have evolved out of a set of technologies created for very mundane activities. Yet simply taking over routine work like this will not lead to a big enough market to support the high valuations of the bot companies. The market is likely to be worth $2.9bn in 2022, according to Forrester — more than 10 times what it was in 2016, but still little more than a rounding error in the expected $48.5bn office AI market four years from now.
Such examples have fuelled investors’ hopes that the bots companies will become important software platforms in their own right as AI invades business. But with most companies still at an early stage in using the basic automation technology.