As a tsunami of AI-driven automation technology hits the global market, one wonders if there could be a completely robotic enterprise run independently of humans. Though the concept of a fully automated enterprise may seem farfetched and is perhaps decades away, every bleeding-edge enterprise must take strides towards this goal in the next few years.
Let us look at each function of a large-scale organization – front office, production, and back office – and see if a robotic enterprise could become a reality.
We are all familiar with the cashier-free Amazon’s Go store which is revolutionizing retail. Add to that a robot-run hotel named “Weird Hotel” with no human employees, operating successfully in Japan for a few years now. Not only has this eliminated labor costs, but it has also enhanced customer services through multi-lingual support. McDonald’s has implemented self-ordering kiosks removing the need to hire cashiers. While none of this has reached the size and scale of a fully automated front office, they prove that, across industries, front office functions can be performed by machines interacting directly with customers.
In the manufacturing sector, production has always been the focus of automation with the introduction of mechanized factories. Tesla, for instance, is planning a fully automated robot plant to manufacture its Model Y.
On the other hand, back office functions like HR, finance, and legal have traditionally been human intensive. Yet, even these can be automated via underlying IT systems automation. JP Morgan has already eliminated 360,000 hours of contract reviewing work, typically performed by lawyers, with AI-based bots. AI engines have successfully powered loan processing decisions in several pilot projects. Facebook has automated even highly complicated tasks like negotiation – using two intelligent bots to arrive at a negotiated agreement.
One would think that new product launches call for a lot of innovation, outside the ambit of robots. However, experts agree that most new products are only incremental innovations: improvements and alterations based on trends like consumer chatter and environmental factors like weather or season. In fashion, older designs often get recycled as a ‘trend’. A bot is significantly more efficient in picking up these patterns and creating a better incremental product than is possible with merely human efforts.
While there are proven success stories of bots accelerating product launches in the pharmaceutical space, both media and the fashion industry have also begun to automate product creation. Consider Zalando, a European e-commerce company, which used an AI engine for fashion design, creating a personalized product for each consumer.
Today, there are only two things that could slow down the evolution of the robotic enterprise.
First is the need for ecosystem development. For a robotic enterprise to function optimally, we need an effective ecosystem built around it with vendors, suppliers, and interconnected devices all able to interact with robots and contribute towards value creation. Early adopters will drive automation across industries, eventually culminating in a holistic, all-encompassing ecosystem.
Secondly, we must also analyze the socioeconomic impact of robotic enterprises. What would large swaths of the population, currently employed in process-driven, repetitive tasks, do when automated robotic enterprises become the mainstay of our economy? What would these workers do for a living? Such concerns could slow down adoption and ecosystem development, but cannot stop the inevitable. The true disruptors will be the ones who adopt and implement this revolutionary technology ahead of the pack.