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The Myth, the Machine, the Legend: the Robot

Artificial intelligence (AI) might be all the rage today but the philosophical questions it poses — can machines replace humans, can AI and machines be trusted, and how can AI be used humanely?— are hardly unique. Greek mythology tackled such questions over 2,500 years ago. The myth of Talos tells of a giant bronze man forged by the god Hephaestus. Created to defend the island of Crete from unwanted visitors, Talos’s “body had a single vein, which ran all the way from his neck to his ankle, sealed there with either a bronze nail or a thin membrane of skin.” The Talos myth could be the first mention of robots in literature, but, according to Stanford’s A Robotic History, there are references to mechanical devices used to carry out a particular physical task that occurred around 3000 B.C. Over the next few millennia, Stanford documents devices such as the Egyptian water clock used as human figurines to strike hour bells, flying wooden pigeons invented in 400 B.C., as well as second-century hydraulically-operated statues that could speak, gesture, and make prophecies.

“Robotic inventions reached a relative peak (before the 20th century) in the 1700s; countless ingenious, yet impractical, automata (i.e. robots) were created during this time period,” reports Stanford. The 19th century saw the famous American inventor Thomas Edison create a talking doll, while Canadian inventors built steam-powered robots, adds Stanford. The modern robot was invented in the early 1950s and robots have so entered our consciousness that they are everywhere in culture.

With Artificial Intelligence for Operations (AIOps) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA), AI is leading the way in the next iteration of robotic technology, although much of this work occurs inside an IT system, which makes the processes digital rather than mechanical.

Robotic Process Automation

Today, one of the biggest and most useful areas of AI is RPA, which involves automation software rather than physical robots. Gartner defines it as “a productivity tool that allows a user to configure one or more scripts (which some vendors refer to as ‘bots’) to activate specific keystrokes in an automated fashion. The result is that the bots can be used to mimic or emulate selected tasks (transaction steps) within an overall business or IT process.” In essence, RPA turns a computer into a virtual human that responds to a set of repetitive instructions. It works in an “outside-in” way, taking control of a keyboard and operating on a computer system’s user interface, as compared to a more typical “inside-out” approach.

RPA allows a user to configure one or more scripts to activate specific keyboard functionality in an automated fashion. It can automate keyboard functions, resulting in applications that mimic or emulate selected tasks, including data gathering, data cleansing, data manipulation, data integration, alerting, event triggering, and analytical model building.

RPA turns a computer into a functioning human that responds to a set of repetitive instructions, allowing employees to focus on higher-order and more profitable business tasks. Its benefits include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Increased system reliability
  • Optimized resource use
  • Reduction of operating and labor costs
  • Reduction of system errors
  • Automatic alerting
  • Increased employee collaboration
  • Improved system compliance
  • Optimization of system task executions

RPA can extract data from documents, create and deliver invoices, disseminate daily P&L statements, as well as automate testing scenarios. On a customer level, it can assist with CRM and marketing activities, update customer profiles, and set the stage for personalization marketing. It can disseminate tech support information, install software as well as upload patches and upgrades.

For HR, it can verify employment history, help with payroll management, payment automation, and expense management. It can also assist with inventory supply chain management issues. RPA can be used for invoice processing, payroll employee verification, timesheet validation, budget reconciliation, invoicing, automating paycheck creation, administering taxes and benefits, as well as paying or reimbursing employees, says Automation Edge.

AIOps

AIOps has been called ‘The next big thing in IT operations” and it refers to the way data and information from an IT environment are managed by an IT team, specifically with the use of AI tools like machine learning and deep learning.

Gartner defines AIOps as a platform that utilizes “big data, modern machine learning and other advanced analytics technologies to, directly and indirectly, enhance IT operations (monitoring, automation and service desk) functions with proactive, personal and dynamic insight. AIOps platforms enable the concurrent use of multiple data sources, data collection methods, analytical (real-time and deep) technologies, and presentation technologies.”

The benefits of AIOps include:

  • End-to-end visibility into company applications and infrastructure
  • Improved performance monitoring
  • Noise reduction
  • Increase employee collaboration
  • Breakdown of data silos
  • Simplified root cause analysis
  • Seamless customer experience
  • Reduction of IT service ticket volumes
  • Proactive IT self-healing

AIOps helps bring order to chaos, enabling collaboration and workflow activities within IT groups as well as between IT and other business units. AIOps can create a root-cause analysis of predicted issues to determine what might be causing problems within an IT system. AIOps can provide insight into future events, its ML algorithms detecting anomalies, predicting trends, determining causality, and classifying data that can be used to ensure a system operation runs smoothly. This is information the system can use to proactively ensure a system will continue to function properly.

As Gartner explains, AIOps provides “a more practical way to get multiple data sources into one platform and apply multiple analytical technologies to that data in an automated fashion to discover the relationships and patterns that lie undiscovered in previously isolated data.”

The Revolution will be Automated + Roboticized

According to Towards Data Science, over 70% to 80% of rules-based processes in businesses today can be automated, which means there will be enormous demand for processes like AIOps and RPA. According to Quartz, Foxconn plans to replace 80% of its workforce with robots in the next five to 10 years. Forbes also reports that China’s e-commerce giant JD.com is following a similar robotic path; the company plans to spend $4.5 billion to build an AI center in Guangdong, China, aimed to create a completely automated company.

In the Greek myth of Talos, the robot had one weakness — his ankle contained a single vein filled with his life-fluid (ichor, the blood of the gods), which was sealed with a thin membrane of skin or a bronze nail. In one version of the story, Medea “tricked Talos by either promising him immortality or giving him some of her herbs, after which she quickly pulled out the bronze nail beneath the sinew by his ankle.”

In her Ted talk on Talos, Adrienne Mayor notes the Talos myth appears on Greek coins, vase painting, public frescos, and in many theatrical performances. “Even 2500 years ago, Greeks had already begun to investigate the uncertain line between human and machine,” Mayor writes. “And like many modern myths about AI, Talos's tale is as much about his robotic heart as it is about his robotic brain. Illustrating the demise of Talos on a vase of the fifth century BCE, one painter captured the dying automaton’s despair with a tear rolling down his bronze cheek,” She adds.

Automation isn’t only about robots and factory floors, it is also about removing the day-to-day drudgery of grinding work that humans, in many cases, would prefer not to do. AIOps and RPA can automate away repetitive processes and let humans do what humans do best — create. For companies willing to embrace AIOps and RPA, the ROI should be high, especially over the long term. For those reluctant to embrace this technology, however, perhaps they should heed Tom Preston-Werner’s warning that “You’re either the one that creates the automation or you’re getting automated.”

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Product AI is a magazine that covers AI product/project management, AI business cases and reference architectures. We invite product experts and solution architects to share their knowledge here.

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Andrew W. Pearson

Andrew W. Pearson

Andrew Pearson is the MD of Intelligencia, a software consulting company. Speaker, author, columnist, Pearson writes about IT issues like AI, CI, and analytics.

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