What is… robotic process automation and chatbots?

A new accessible tech explainer series from the Garage.

By Elana Spivack — March 1, 2022

Have you ever wished a clone would do your chores? One version of you tends to tedious, repetitive tasks like laundry and cleaning while the “real” you tackles more interesting goals. Clones aren’t here yet, but robotic process automation (RPA) serves a similar business purpose. RPA is a software that can be trained to complete administrative tasks like formatting documents, copying spreadsheets, and answering frequently asked questions. It’s also the engine behind chatbots, probably the most familiar type of RPA-in-action. While RPA focuses on executing tasks and process steps, chatbots enables interactions through natural language and conversation. While a chatbot can interact with a customer to take information about an order issue or answer frequently asked questions, RPA can connect to the back office order system to retrieve the order status and make updates. The RPA market is expected to reach $5 billion by 2024, according to a Global Markets Insights report.

What is robotic process automation and chatbots?

Illustration by Eric Chow

How it works

A copycat bot records a user’s every click and keystroke in completing a task. The bot then mimics the human actions like the user it learned from, and it can do it faster and without mistakes. A combination of screen scraping, workflow automation, and machine learning technologies underpin how the bot works and learns. RPA can interact with various web applications, documents, spreadsheet, reports and data exactly like a human user would. In action, the bot swiftly pulls relevant data from specific documents and can glean based on statistical analysis how to alter or format that information. RPA reduces possible human error while letting people devote their time and energy to work that computers can’t mimic and critical-thinking tasks rather than repetitive ones.

The a-ha moment

The path to RPA began in the 1990s with user interface testing, which ensured that a program visual layout functioned smoothly. As personal computers cropped up, companies automated UI testing with programming scripts. In the 2000s, screen scraping tech boomed in large part from banks and insurance companies, which handle oodles of data at once. In the 2010s, as businesses sought to reduce expenses while continuing to go digital and with the advancement of computer vision technology, RPA was born from other developing tech like work automation and machine learning, emerging as an efficient, affordable option. 

What it means for everyday life

RPA can save a boatload of time and energy. RPA most immediately lends itself to round-the-clock customer service, back office tasks, procurement and shipping order processing, and administrative assistance at a retail, insurance, healthcare website, or customer support portal where chatbots can respond to customers with natural language. RPA is also becoming an automation tool for everybody given that you do not need a programming background to use it. Businesses save money and labor costs, reduce errors, and can devote more time to matching customers with human reps and dealing with more complex issues. 

How it might change the world

Soon you’ll be able to use RPA for things like insurance claims processing operations and other tedious but necessary tasks without any paperwork. As RPA becomes more intelligent, bots will be able to file and process data online directly. One day, a chatbot will be able to tell you how much you save while comparing flights or autonomously answer an email inquiry regarding a banking dispute. Eventually the technology will move into hyper-automation where it is able to do more complex tasks without human intervention.


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