Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While industrial robots may get more of the attention, the real acceleration in workplace automation will come via software.

Why it matters: Robotic process automation (RPA) allows companies to program computer software to emulate the actions of a human worker online. That potentially opens up a much larger portion of the economy to automation at a moment when the pandemic has already forced businesses to go remote.

A recent survey from Bain and Company of nearly 800 executives worldwide estimated that the number of companies scaling up such automation technologies is set to double over the next two years — and that coronavirus will almost certainly accelerate that timeline.

  • Businesses are already using automated bots to respond to the pandemic, says Michael Heric, the leader of Bain's Automation Center of Excellence and a co-author of the report. That includes processing testing kits and helping with SBA loan applications.
  • "We see a lot of clients saying that remote work during the pandemic demonstrates that some of this activity should be automated as well," says Heric.

Details: Physical robots are certainly getting a boost as companies respond both to the pandemic and the economic downturn, as I wrote in Future last week. But software agents that can automate business processes — which, somewhat confusingly, are also referred to as "robots" — can be introduced more rapidly to a much wider range of companies, especially as more of the economy moves online.

  • UiPath, a leading RPA vendor, is working with a hospital in Dublin to produce software robots capable of rapidly disseminating COVID-19 test results, which the company says can save nurses as much as three hours of work per day.
  • IPsoft has developed an "AI digital colleague" called Amelia that can work to intelligently answer service requests for banks, IT desks, and other businesses that interface online with customers. More recently, the company has used Amelia to help the AskMD platform screen users online for COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Gloat provides an AI platform that helps HR departments in large companies like Schneider Electric provide career development for employees — a particularly challenging task at a moment when most workers have been forced to operate remotely.

What they're saying: RPA was already on the rise before COVID-19 hit, thanks to continually improving machine learning technology. But the unique circumstances of the pandemic — and the tendency of companies to invest in labor-replacing automation during economic downturns — will see it infiltrating the economy even faster.

  • At an uncertain moment when companies might need to rapidly scale up or down certain parts of their business, "software robots give you immense flexibility," says Ashim Gupta, the chief financial officer at UiPath.
  • With the physical world largely off-limits for an unknown period of time, companies need to go digital first, says Jonathan Crane, chief commercial officer for IPsoft. "We need to do this polar shift from the days when business processes were managed by people and assisted by technology, to one where business processes are managed by technology and assisted by humans."

The catch: While industrial robots have and will continue to displace some human workers in manufacturing and other physical occupations, more than three-quarters of the U.S. economy is now provided by the services sector. That means vastly more jobs are at least somewhat at risk from the spread of this brand of automation, on top of the tens of millions of jobs already lost during the initial months of the pandemic.

  • "There are very serious displacement problems that we should be worried about," says Michael Lotito, co-chair of the Workplace Policy Institute at Littler. "If we don't embrace these issues now, there are opportunities here for social unrest."

Yes, but: Companies in the space insist that software robots are less about outright replacing human employees than augmenting them by taking low-level, repetitive work off their hands. The result is what some experts call a "hybrid workforce."

  • "This isn't primarily about reducing costs," says UiPath's Gupta. "This is about using robots to handle a surge in volume."
  • Bain's Heric notes that many of the lowest-skilled service jobs — like those found in call centers — had already been outsourced from the U.S. to countries like India and the Philippines, and that workers there could be in trouble. "That's where the impact of automation is really going to be felt."

The bottom line: The pandemic has shown us that many of us can do our jobs remotely because at the end of the day, we're primarily working with a computer online. Don't be surprised if more and more of that work is done by the computer itself.

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