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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

Swing voters oppose Texas abortion law

Protesters at a rally at the Texas State Capitol. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

All 10 swing voters in Axios’ latest focus groups — including those who described themselves as "pro-life" — said they oppose Texas' new anti-abortion law.

Why it matters: If their responses reflect larger patterns in U.S. society, this could hurt Republicans with women and independents in next year's midterm elections. The swing voters cited overreach, invasion of privacy and concerns about frivolous lawsuits jamming up the courts.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden bombs with Manchin

Then-Vice President Joe Biden conducts a ceremonial swearing-in for Sen. Joe Manchin in 2010. Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call

President Biden failed to persuade Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to agree to spending $3.5 trillion on the Democrats' budget reconciliation package during their Oval Office meeting on Wednesday, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Defying a president from his own party — face-to-face — is the strongest indication yet Manchin is serious about cutting specific programs and limiting the price tag of any potential bill to $1.5 trillion. His insistence could blow up the deal for progressives and others.

Biden blindsides Europe with new AUKUS alliance on China

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Biden is constructing and deepening new alliances to strengthen the U.S. position in its showdown with China, but he risks alienating longstanding allies in the process.

Why it matters: Biden heralded a new agreement to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines as part of a trilateral security pact with the U.K. and the U.S. as an "historic step" to update U.S. alliances to face new challenges. The message from French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was quite different.