Updated 12:49 EST. 07 June 2018

Headlines warning that automation will sweep away countless jobs aren’t hard to find online lately. But some technology experts contest that automation tools won’t evaporate workers, but rather they’ll free them from drudgery.

With plumbing and pencil-pushing automated away, workers can set their brains on harder problems that demand novel solutions. The predicted growth of robotic process automation, or RPA, could shoot job productivity to new heights, according to Jeff Immelt (pictured), former chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co.

“The fact of the matter is, nobody has easy jobs,” Immelt said. The armchair theorizing of Silicon Valley pundits and media types is out of touch with workers’ day-to-day reality. The amount of grunt work and hassles that eat up time and energy at work is heaping in many professions, he added.


“If everybody… everyday would actually observe how tasks actually get done, you’d say, ‘Bring on more technology,’” Immelt stated. Scratching such tasks off the daily agenda with RPA bots does not make human employees obsolete; it will probably just make them better at what they do.

Immelt spoke with Jeff Frick (@JeffFrick), host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, during the Imagine 2018 event in New York City. They discussed automation phobia and the not-so-scary reality of RPA in the workplace. (* Disclosure below.)

This week theCUBE spotlights Jeff Immelt as our Guest of the Week.

RPA dissected
There is some confusion about what RPA is, as the term is sometimes conflated with artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. “RPA tools offer potential ways to automate all or some stages of manual rule-based processes that were previously not automated,” according to a Gartner Inc. report originally published in 2016 and refreshed last February.

RPA in the raw is not AI — that is, it does not have an autonomous learning capability. However, it can be combined with AI technology in various ways. Both aim to remove as much work as possible from humans’ hands so they can focus on high value-add, creative thinking and innovating.


“… Automation tools, artificial intelligence and RPA as a combined group of tools can achieve organizations’ goals of optimizing business activities and address IT challenges in the digital age or fourth industrial revolution,” Gartner Research Vice President Cathy Tornbohm stated in the above-cited report. “Optimizing the use of such tools is essentially a team effort, which can no longer allow business activities to fall into the chasm between IT and the business. Perhaps think of RPA as a digitalized, process-ambivalent tool.”

The global RPA market size was valued at $199.1 million in 2016, according to a report from Grand View Research Inc. The RPA market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 60.5 percent over the report’s forecast period of 2016-2024, Grand View predicts.

Not your daddy’s enterprise software
RPA is not your daddy’s set of enterprise assistance tools, according to Immelt. Enterprise resource planning, manufacturing systems, and even customer relationship management are more geared for governance. They connected big enterprises, but they did not drive the kind of decision support that RPA (and AI) will, he explained. Productivity gains are what RPA brings to the table.

“I think the next wave of tools will operate inside that envelope,” Immelt said. “Ultimately, these will all merge, but I think these [RPA] are going to get productivity much quicker than an ERP system or an [manufacturing execution system] did.”


RPA is the low-hanging-fruit for those on the race to digital transformation. Unlike some of the technologies that claim to get businesses there, RPA does not require a major reorganization of IT, operations or other departments, according to Immelt. “The reason why I like RPA — what we call bots — is because it can happen so quickly; it can happen across the organization; it has great productivity associated with it,” he said. “So I kind of view RPA as being one of the early wave technologies in terms of how to drive more automation and productivity in the workplace.”

Immelt echoes the verdict of Craig Le Clair, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., who recently told the theCUBE that a measly 11 percent of companies are making any progress with their digital transformation initiatives, according to Forrester’s surveys. RPA could provide a shortcut to modernization, he explained.

“There’s no data integration; there’s no [application program interfaces] involved; there’s no big transformation consultants flying in; there’s not even a requirements document, because you’re going to start with recording the actual human activity at a work station,” Le Clair said.


Throw RPA in the water, and see if workforce can swim
While RPA could spell job replacement for cubicle workers, it will result in big productivity gains for workers it does not oust, Le Clair predicted.

Immelt agrees and provided an anecdote to illustrate the point: Doing a quote for a gas power plant would take eight weeks, but with bots, the workers can now draw data from different sources and complete the task in two and a half days.

“I think many more jobs will be technically enabled than will be eliminated by technology,” Immelt said. Clearly, some will be more adversely affected than others, but there is no telling what new opportunities automation could open up, he added.

“I think we’re much better off as an economy getting these tools out there, getting people experienced with them and seeing what happens next,” Immelt stated. “A field engineer fixing a [wind] turbine out in the middle of Texas … — if we can arm them with some virtual reality tools and the ability to use analytics so that they can fix it right the first time, that’s liberating to that person. They won’t look at that and say, ‘Oh my God, if I use this, they’re going to replace me.’”

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of Imagine 2018. (* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for Imagine 2018. Neither Automation Anywhere Inc., the event sponsor, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)