Automation Anywhere and Robotic Process Automation
We recently came across an article in The Guardian warning about the rise of “pseudo AI” companies that fake the use of artificial intelligence by saddling humans with the mundane tasks the machines are supposed to take over. Some employ humans as a way to train the algorithms before the platform is ready to scale. Apparently, this was the case for AI chatbot companies like X.ai and Clara. Others just enslave contract with overseas call centers and play a software shell game until they can turn the work over to an AI system that actually works. This may lead you to wonder whether AI is all hype and is headed for a Dot-Com-type bubble. While we would argue that the technology is disruptive in a very real sense, we’ve come across our share of startups and even public companies that pepper their marketing PR and websites with buzzwords like “smart,” “intelligent,” “automation,” “machine learning” and so forth. That brings us to the phenomenon of robotic process automation and a startup called Automation Anywhere.
Automation Anywhere and Robotic Process Automation
Robotic Process Automation (RPA), sometimes referred to as business process automation, involves using “robots” as a digital workforce to do mundane tasks such as processing invoices or shuffling data from one database or spreadsheet to another. On one hand, it might seem like so much marketing hype over what’s really just upgraded software. However, the intelligence part comes into play because much of the data that must be juggled is unstructured, such as text in an email or even video and pictures, which requires more sophisticated algorithms. AI bots can use techniques such as computer vision to recognize different types of documents or natural language processing to understand the context of an email message.
That’s what Automation Anywhere, a Silicon Valley startup that’s been around for 15 years, reputedly does with its RPA platform. The company apparently never took a dime of private capital until this month, when it announced a $250 million megaround led by venerable VC firm New Enterprise Associates and not-so-venerable investment bank Goldman Sachs. That gave it instant unicorn status, with a valuation of $1.8 billion, joining another RPA startup that uses AI called UiPath that has raised $183 million with a $1.1 billion valuation back in March. Suddenly, it seems as if everyone is talking about and using RPA, a trend not lost on the bright minds over at CB Insights:
In fact, earlier this year we came across not one but two public companies that claim their RPA platforms are driven by artificial intelligence—Pegasystems (NASDAQ:PEGA) out of Cambridge, Massachusetts with a market cap of more than $4.5 billion and London-based Blue Prism (LSE:PRSM) with a market cap of $1.2 billion. In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been using a lot of “billions” in this article, so RPA is reaping a lot of money right now, because it promises to save companies money by freeing employees to do more value-added tasks, like finding new jobs.
Update 11/17//2018: Automation Anywhere has raised $300 million in funding from Softbank’s Vision Fund at a post-money valuation of $2.6 billion to continue to deliver the most advanced RPA to the market, and help bring AI to millions. This brings the company’s total funding to $500 million to date.
Robotic Process Automation Improves the Bottom Line
So how does turning over mundane jobs like processing a mortgage application to a “robot” help a company’s bottom line? Let’s take a few real-world examples from Automation Anywhere’s client list of more than 1,100 customers, which includes big names such as Google, GM, Siemens, Cisco Systems, LinkedIn and Comcast.
- A printing and graphics company called Quad/Graphics first deployed the Automation Anywhere RPA platform within its finance department to streamline payments processing. The customer’s billing professionals now generate customer invoices instead of manually generating the necessary 10 billing reports required for each invoiced job. That reduced the collection time and led to a dramatic increase in cash flow—$10 million per day.
- Juniper Networks (NYSE:JNPR) manufactures networking hardware, such as routers, and software. Juniper originally hired Automation Anywhere to automate the billing portal process for its six largest customers. The time to submit invoices dropped from two days to instantaneous with the AA platform, including weekends and holidays. That led to fewer late payments and zero disputes thanks to 100 percent machine accuracy.
- An online marketing company called Core Digital Media turned to the AA platform to extract information from dozens of online publishers in formats including email and websites in order to deliver high-quality leads to its clients based on up-to-the minute data. RPA is doing that work and saving Core Digital Media 300 person-hours per month—a savings of about $150,000 per year. In addition, the platform provides insights into consumer behaviors. For example, after sending a qualified lead to a client, automated scripts can capture relevant data showing how the lead performed for that client. Those sorts of insights are now available on a daily versus weekly basis.
The opportunities to create efficiencies for RPA seem limitless. For example, Automation Anywhere CEO and co-founder Mihir Shukla predicts his intelligent digital workforce will be able to shrink the 30-day mortgage application process down to a next-day delivery. There go a few more white-collar jobs.
Growing the Robotic Process Automation Footprint
Automation Anywhere has about 700 employees spread across offices in the United States, England, India, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. The company plans to use all its new greenbacks to expand its geographic footprint as well as its technology platform, which not only includes AI-powered automation but an analytics platform called Bot Insight that can predict performance from the data. For example, a bot can forecast order backlogs or the number of days it will take to process a mortgage application. The platform is also agnostic, serving a number of different industries, from banking and financial services to insurance and healthcare.
Robotic Process Automation Becomes Smart Process Automation
As we noted earlier, RPA companies are raising some big bucks, so we took a look at some of the previous companies that we’ve covered and found that New York-based WorkFusion raised another $50 million in a Series E round in April, bringing total funding for that RPA startup to about $121 million. Back in the day, according to TechCrunch, WorkFusion once hired crowdsourced workers to train algorithms before its AI platform learned to automate back-office work. Apparently, it works pretty well, based on the funding—and the fact the company landed on the prestigious CB Insights AI 100 list in 2018.
The company refers to its AI-powered platform as smart process automation (SPA), which can handle simple tasks like data migration, as well as complex services like anti-money laundering, customer onboarding and claims handling. For instance, Standard Bank in South Africa cut customer onboarding from 20 days to five minutes using WorkFusion.
Did you notice that it’s never the really sexy technologies that end up making the big bucks? And, really, is there anything less exciting than hearing, “Let’s process some invoices?” The French philosopher Sartre once said, “Hell is other people,” but we reckon he would feel differently if he spent his days doing the drudgery that comes from shuffling data and extracting information from texts, or helping train an AI system to respond to emails. In that case, welcoming our machine overlords with open arms doesn’t sound half bad.