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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

Birx: Trump White House could have reduced COVID deaths by 30 to 40%

Deborah Birx, then-coronavirus response coordinator, speaks during a news conference in the White House last November. Photo: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator under former President Trump, told a House subcommittee this month that the Trump administration could have prevented tens of thousands of deaths during the early stages of the pandemic.

Driving the news: "I believe if we had fully implemented the mask mandates, the reduction in indoor dining ... and we had increased testing, that we probably could have decreased fatalities into the 30% less to 40% less range," Birx said in closed-door testimony to the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, according to excerpts provided by the panel.

Study: Fear of debt keeps Latinos out of college

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Fear of never being able to pay off school loans is keeping many young Latinos in the U.S. from going to college or completing a degree, according to a report published in September.

State of play: Latinos tend to have more difficulty repaying school debt than white student borrowers, according to Federal Reserve data, at the same time that they need more loans in order to afford tuition.

3 hours ago - World

Scoop: Biden administration objects to Israeli settlements plan

Israeli PM Naftali Bennett (L) meets with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration has privately protested to the Israeli government over its plan to approve the planning and construction of more than 3,000 new housing units in the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: The approvals for new homes in the settlements will be the first since President Biden assumed office, and come after Biden and his top aides personally pressed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to restrain settlement activity and decrease the number of new housing units.