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The evolution of RPA, from macros to process transformation

RPA evolved from technology debuted in the 1950s and '60s and was developed to today's standards by the industry's leading vendors. It's future? Think AI.

Robotic process automation, the much-hyped technology that automates routine digital tasks formerly done by humans -- has a long pedigree, dating back to the introduction of macros in the 1950s. The term itself and the core technologies that underlie today's products are of more recent provenance. Here is a look at the evolution of RPA.

Before RPA was RPA

There were many predecessors to today's RPA tools. Ted Shelton, founder and CEO of Robodomo, an RPA consultancy, said the basic ideas behind RPA stretch back to the invention of macros in the 1950s, data scraping in the 1980s and the advent of web scraping in the 1990s to index the web.

In the early 1980s banks began writing data-scraping apps to capture data from various financial data service like Reuters and Quotron. Later, various vendors began building more sophisticated tools to cut and paste data from mainframe terminal apps to more modern web applications.

"The definitive history of RPA is tough to pin down, as automation as a principle has been the driving story of IT for decades," said John Cottongim, founder and COO of Roots Automation, an automation-as-a-service provider focused on delivering intelligent automation at scale. He sees the history of RPA as coming in three major waves: The first wave included various kinds of programmatic automation techniques like Excel macros. The second wave came out of test automation software pioneered by companies like OpenSpan, which was subsequently acquired by PegaSystems, the BPM tools giant.

The third wave was kicked off by Blue Prism -- a "big three" RPA vendor along with Automation Anywhere and UiPath -- with the development of enterprise-grade automation tooling with comprehensive controls and security baked in.

"In the early days of the third wave, simply having a credentials vault and a serviceable control room would make a product stand out. Today most, though certainly not all solutions, have the required enterprise features," Cottongim said, adding that the third wave is drawing to a close as the base RPA engines have undergone very little change over the past few years.

The evolution of RPA is now entering what Cottongim considers a fourth wave driven by the integration of so-called intelligent components such as OCR, machine learning and chatbots into RPA applications. Though these capabilities are nothing new on their own, the maturity of RPA developers is enabling them to combine these capabilities with traditional RPA. Now that the industry has proven an ability to automate rules-based tasks, enterprises can start to think about improving the workflow between bots and human.

Evolution of RPA: How it got its name

Phil Fersht, founder and chief analyst at HFS Research, introduced the term "robotic automation" in a 2012 blog post about the dawn of a type of outsourcing that involved processes and technology -- "with people an optional extra." Later that year, Blue Prism's Pat Geary (see below) added the word "process," to denote a new category of automation designed to complement business process outsourcing (BPO) and business process management.

Since then, the term has gained wide currency, driven by the leading vendors that developed its core technologies -- Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath -- and adopted  by the over 150 different vendors that offer some flavor of RPA. Major enterprise software providers such as Microsoft, SAP and Pegasystems have also bought their way into the field. More recently, the major RPA providers have started expanding into better support for AI and more integrated workflow management platforms.

A gateway for AI

RPA's fast growth is a mark of its usefulness in automating many enterprise processes. But Fersht noted that the $2.7 billion market for RPA tooling is a tiny fraction of the current $50 billion business process outsourcing market, which relies largely on low-cost human labor to perform the routine, repetitive tasks RPA tools are designed to automate.

One factor limiting RPA's growth has been the enterprise's practice of adopting RPA as a tool, rather than building a center of excellence to support it. As a result, only about 13% of companies have achieved significant scale. "While there has been a lot of lovely noise and hype, most companies are struggling to do anything more than pilots," Fersht said.

Fersht considers RPA to be a kind of gateway to the broader adoption of AI in the enterprise. He expects that RPA tooling will need to evolve to integrated automation platforms that help make it easier for business managers to blend automation, analytics and AI. These kinds of integrated platforms could help overcome some of the challenges around implementing RPA types of capabilities at scale.

"The beauty of RPA is that it has been the first time many business users have had the opportunity to design processes using low-code software," Fersht said. "I think we will see RPA form part of a bigger toolbox of solutions in terms of orchestrating process and transformation."

The evolution of RPA, according to RPA's three top vendors 

Pat Geary, chief evangelist at Blue Prism, describes his part in the evolution of RPA and the company's development of prebuilt digital workers:

"The origins of RPA can be traced back to 2001, when Blue Prism's Alastair Bathgate and David Moss started exploring how to create automation technology that could address operational inefficiencies in the banking sector where human workers perform repetitive tasks that span enterprise-wide IT systems.

By 2007, Blue Prism had solved the long-standing integration challenge of system interoperability, by re-purposing the user interface as a machine interface -- and providing 'code-free' connectivity with any system. This innovation enables digital workers to use and access the same IT systems and mechanisms as humans, so they can automate processes over any past, present and future system.

Pat Geary is chief evangelist at Blue PrismPat Geary

Blue Prism designed a robotic automation platform to carry out tasks in the same way humans do -- via an easy-to-control, prebuilt, automated 'Digital Worker.'  The term RPA was coined in 2012 by myself and marked a new software category and market for the technology.

Another breakthrough was putting RPA in the direct hands of business users, meaning no programming skills are required to use this software. Blue Prism's Digital Workers are therefore prebuilt, ready to go and there's also no coding required when using an intuitive central operating system to 'draw, create and publish' process automations."

Daniel Dines, co-founder and CEO of UiPath, explains how UiPath got its start and won a stake in the BPO industry.

Daniel Dines is co-founder and CEO of UiPathDaniel Dines

"Our journey began in 2005 in a tiny apartment in Bucharest, Romania. We had a graphical user interface automation library -- similar to a screen scraping software developer kit for user interface (UI) automation -- and a team of 10 people. The tool allowed a user to double click on any word on a screen and get access to a definition, like a pop-up or a search query in Google. From 2005 to 2011, the software library was tested and used on tens of millions of computers by customers like IBM, Microsoft and Siemens. This large installation base is what allowed us to perfect our solution and make it work with any application in the Windows ecosystem. The tool was able to intercept clicks, screen scrape forms and send the information to databases -- it was the beginning of automation as we know it.

But the fundamental shift came when a customer showed us how it was building off those tools to train software to mimic basic tasks like data entry -- no engineer needed. We dispatched staff to visit the company and then snatched a contract from Blue Prism, which had just coined the term 'RPA' after automating back-office functions for banks. The customer made it clear this was the best use of our technology.

In 2012, our team saw the opportunity in developing a more business-friendly product, and by the following year, we had effectively entered the RPA market. The first UiPath Desktop Automation product line based on the Windows Workflow Foundation was launched, which was perfect for process automation -- making the solution fluid and easy to work with. In 2013, UiPath had its first major RPA implementation when a global BPO used the solution to automate over 50 processes for one of their largest IT customers."

Mihir Shukla, co-founder and CEO of Automation Anywhere, recalls the early days of the company when it was called Tethys Solutions.

"I dreamed of pursuing advanced studies after college. However, I quickly realized that I could make a greater impact by creating and accelerating technologies that are at the forefront of innovation. 

Mihir Shukla is cofounder and CEO of Automation AnywhereMihir Shukla

I've spent my career in technology helping to establish new categories, and have held leadership roles in Internet, e-commerce and wireless markets, prior to embarking on intelligent automation.

By being at the early stages at several different organizations, I saw firsthand how repetitive and labor-intensive day-to-day tasks could affect human workers -- whether having to manually replicate processing a simple invoice or inputting data from one system to another, I suspected we could find a better way to use technology to eliminate many of these labor-intensive tasks while increasing productivity and efficiency -- and at the same time liberating employees from their more mundane, manual processes.

At Tethys Solutions [now called Automation Anywhere] in 2003 we built robotic process automation technologies to help eliminate time-consuming tasks, though the term wasn't fully defined yet. … Our tag line was 'a bot on every desktop.' At the time, software bots were less sophisticated. Early on, most software bots could automate single tasks rather than end-to-end processes and only later artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities were incorporated.

What events kicked the RPA industry into high gear? There were four key events that occurred. First, the technology matured and was able to tackle more larger-scale and mission-critical deployments. Secondly, more millennials entered the workforce than ever before and had little interest in handling mundane, repetitive tasks at work. There were also lower birthrates in developed countries such as Japan forcing companies to adopt new technologies given the shortage of a skilled labor force. Lastly, the world stage was looking for the next growth driver and discovered it in both hardware and software robotics."

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What is the next phase in the evolution of RPA?
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I have something to say about fifth wave, but not now.  For seven years, I was the Associate Director of Natural Language Processing for a Robotics division at an organization.  I took over the position when my professor friend passed away.  Thank you.
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I witnessed the first wave of robotics (hard) at my alumni.  It happened before you were born.  Robotics were primitive then; a programming language was used to tell robotics what to do next. 
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