Intelligent Automation: Definition and Examples

Independent analysts like Deloitte warn that companies that fail to include intelligent automation in their work processes will be left behind. It’s an opportunity that can’t be overlooked, but what is it, how are other businesses using it, and how might it apply to your business?

It seems that intelligent automation is finding its place in almost every industry, and the primary advantage its proponents cite is its ability to help businesses transcend limitations to their efficiency. And although the first thing you might think of is advanced robotics, that’s just one area in which we can apply intelligent automation. Routine tasks performed by humans can also benefit.

What is Intelligent Automation?

To better understand the vast potential inherent in intelligent automation, a little background is in order. Simply put, we can define it as the unification of two technological concepts that have been around for a long time: artificial intelligence and automation.

Artificial intelligence embraces things like machine learning, language recognition, and vision, while automation has been with us since the industrial revolution. Just as automation has progressed, so artificial intelligence has advanced, and by bringing the two together, automation achieves the advantages bestowed by intelligence.

In the past, computing power was too limited for us to apply artificial intelligence to complex problems, and depending on the application, other technological deficiencies stood in the way. For example, driverless cars need reliable sensors to gather the information needed so that the car can “decide” how to react to a situation. Although our technologies can still improve, they are capable of achieving results that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

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Huge Potential Across a Wide Range of Applications

Intelligent automation allows us to turn vast amounts of data into processable information, synthesizing it into a useable format and even recommending courses of action. It can also track and automate processes and workflows, and because it’s “intelligent,” it can make decisions and learn as it goes.

This may sound very broad – and it is. Intelligent automation is being used in everything from robotics and autonomous cars to cognitive computing and controlling quality, efficiency, and business functionality.

Big businesses aren’t overlooking the opportunities inherent in intelligent automation. Google has purchased no fewer than eight robotics start-ups, automakers are racing to produce the first completely autonomous cars, and IBM is investing heavily in cognitive computing technology. But intelligent information isn’t just for the giants; it’s something even the smaller firms can benefit from.

Processing Situational and Textual Information

Intelligence allows human beings to analyze a situation or read and comprehend a text. We then join the mental dots and come up with a course of action. Now, machines have that capacity too – and they’re often better at it and a lot quicker than any human could be.

The testing of driverless cars on public roads is already underway. They use situational data to inform their decisions. IBM’s Watson, on the other hand, can analyze enormous amounts of textual data to answer complex questions faster than a human being ever could.

Commercially, a lot of businesses already use intelligent automation, even though they might be unaware of it. For instance, your website might already be presenting information based on your visitors’ previous browsing and purchasing patterns. Or you could be using a system that spots and blocks potentially fraudulent credit card transactions.

Changing the Way We Do Business

Just as the industrial revolution changed the way enterprises produce goods, so the revolution in intelligent automation is changing the way we work. And there are several obstacles that would be difficult for businesses to surmount without it. These include:

  • The high cost of labor and labor scarcity call for a reduction in labor costs and increased labor
  • The growing complexity and volume of the data that businesses must process, understand, and act on.
  • The need to differentiate one’s business from competitors through greater efficiency, better customer experience management, and enhanced product and service features and still remain in a profitable position.

Facilitating Work Performance Across Sectors

Intelligent automation allows machines to do more than just process data. They can now analyze data sets, spot inconsistencies, check for correctness, and ultimately, make a decision. Of course, some decisions still require final confirmation from a human operator, but the initial thinking has already been done by the software robot.

There are multiple examples of how businesses across widely differing industries make use of intelligent automation. We can categorize these broadly as decision-making tasks and physical ones.

Decision-Making: When Smart Machines Call the Shots

Financial Services: Major investment managers use software robots to study research notes for consistency. In the process, they may uncover inconsistencies that a human being would have been unable to spot in the vast volume of information provided. Meanwhile, Credit Suisse analyses companies using a huge volume of data sources. The intelligent automation system it uses is even able to write research reports and draw conclusions without human intervention. The company says that its intelligent software has allowed it to improve both the volume of its research output and the quality of the reports it produces.

Prescribing Treatment Plans: IBM’s Watson helps physicians to stay ahead of the curve. With a continuous stream of new advances and research to process, doctors could easily spend many hours investigating the best treatment options for a patient only to miss some vital scrap of information. Cognitive computing technology allows Watson to propose treatment plans based on all the available evidence. That’s good news for doctors and patients alike.

Identifying Threats to Public Order: Crime and terrorism are major concerns in today’s cities. Security cameras can’t be monitored 24/7. There are simply too many of them. London has implemented a system that alerts security analysts to possible threats, flagging them for human attention after analyzing data from sensors and cameras.

A New Way of Evaluating Creditworthiness: Quarterly financials are a good way of evaluating a company’s creditworthiness, but in a fast-paced business environment, significant changes in financial standing can fall between reporting dates. Intelligent software can monitor thousands of data sources, evaluating the information and spotting risks that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This not only allows companies to avoid risks but also to offer more favorable terms in response to opportunities presented by companies with a positive credit outlook.

Workflow Software and Conditional Logic: On the surface, managing workflows through an automated system should be simple enough. But there are times when the outcome of a workflow, and the route it follows, depends on conditional logic. This could be more complex than a simple “if A=B then C” equation. Intelligent automation can evaluate a current situation based on all the factors and systems that impact on it, deciding on the best course of action to follow.

Physical Tasks and Intelligent Automation

We already understand basic automation in which “robots” carry out repetitive tasks in production line settings, but machine intelligence has taken this to the next level and has allowed us to automate tasks that we could only perform manually in the past.

Distributing Products: Crate & Barrel and Walgreens are among the retail giants that are using robots that can think for themselves to improve the efficiency with which they fulfill orders. Robots travel around warehouses without colliding with other traffic. They fetch units loaded with products that will be dispatched, and bring them to the teams responsible for order fulfillment and shipping.

Collaborative Robots Work With People: Using robots in auto assembly is nothing new, but prior to 2013, robots and people were segregated for safety reasons. Then Volkswagen introduced a collaborative robot that works with human operators, taking over a physically demanding task that formed part of an assembly process. If the human technician is in the way of the robot, it will react to the situation. It, therefore, needs no protective housing and can collaborate with its human “co-workers.”

Robot Soldiers and Aircraft: Intelligent automation is already being used in airborne drone technology, and there are even four-legged robots that can run, climb, negotiate tough terrain and respond to orders from a human commander.

Driverless Cars: Autonomous cars that you can send to do your shopping, collect a friend or family member, or simply use to get around safely, are big news right now. Many believe that this advance will revolutionize the future of transportation.

Hauling Ore: Driverless trucks are already at work in Australian mines, and big mining companies see these autonomous vehicles as a way of improving productivity and worker safety. The trucks can navigate the site with little human intervention, and the company says it is saving up to 500 hours a year through its use of intelligent automation.

The Challenges that Intelligent Automation Poses in Today’s Business World

Although some intelligent automation systems may be costly, particularly when specialized hardware forms part of the package, intelligent software is becoming cheaper. It is now affordable enough to allow even small and medium enterprises to adopt it in one form or another. But whatever your business size and whatever form of intelligent automation you would like to apply, you will face initial challenges.

These might include:

  • Determining how and where to use intelligent automation and where it will have the greatest positive impact.
  • Integrating the new technology into an existing business and ensuring user adoption and compliance.
  • “Teaching” the intelligent automation system what it needs to know to perform its task.
  • Restructuring employee training, tasks, job descriptions, and assignments based on the new methods you will implement.
  • Managing risks such as cybersecurity

A Technological Revolution You Can’t Afford to Overlook

Ultimately, intelligent automation has vast potential for improving efficiency for the average company, as well as being a complete game-changer for bigger corporations.

The capital investment needed for this can range from minimal to astronomical, depending on what, exactly, you’re trying to automate. If you’re looking for something more in the affordable range (for the average business), business process automation might be what you’re looking for. Learn about the different tools & what your business stands to gain!

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About the author - Amit Kothari

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