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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Businesses are building a new kind of assembly line — and this one is digital, staffed by software bots.

Why it matters: For all the hopes and fears around industrial robots, more progress is being made in the realm of digital workers: Bots that can perform a growing number of often tedious and time-consuming tasks in an increasingly online business world.

  • The shift holds out the promise of enhanced productivity and reduced costs for companies, even as some human employees may end up automated out of a job.

How it works: Intelligent automation takes the logic of a physical assembly line — where the work of making something is broken into discrete, individual tasks that can be done more efficiently in sequence — and moves it into the digital world.

  • What intelligent automation allows companies to do is "rethink the process lines of how business is done," says Jason Kingdon, the CEO of Blue Prism, a leading intelligent automation company. "Why not have digital assistants that can work throughout your entire company?"

Details: Kingdon uses the example of how Blue Prism works with banks on reducing credit card fraud.

  • Banks "used to have a dedicated team that would go through (questionable) transactions and fill in the various forms that a credit card company would require," he says. "Now they train robots to do that task, and have it fully automated in a way that a robot will be able to carry out all of that activity."
  • "It's now a process that no longer needs any human interaction."

By the numbers: Gartner projects that business spending on robotic process automation — a part of intelligent automation — will grow by nearly $1.5 billion in 2021.

  • It is estimated it will be worth over $23 billion globally by the end of 2026.
  • That growth is being fueled by trends that emerged out of the pandemic, when companies were forced to digitize as fast as possible.
  • In a December 2020 McKinsey survey of global executives, 51% of respondents in North America and Europe reported they had increased investment in new technologies — excluding remote work — in 2020, while companies were able to digitize many business activities 20 to 25 times faster than they had previously thought.

The big picture: Just as Henry Ford and his peers were able to revolutionize manufacturing in part by breaking tasks down into an assembly line, intelligent automation works best when knowledge work can be broken down into discrete micro-tasks that can be handled by bots.

  • Intelligent automation "is not one monolithic capability," says Kingdon. Instead, the question is "How do you break up that task into tiny, very-well-understood steps? And then the digital workers can synthesize and bring all those steps together."

The catch: Like any other form of automation, intelligent automation can make human workers more productive individually — but it also carries with it the longer-term specter of job loss as the bots get more capable and companies look to cut payroll.

The bottom line: Most companies are "still very, very early in the journey" of intelligent automation, says Kingdon.

  • "But once you start, you see that anything you want codified, it can do better."

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.