Business process automation is not AI

It’s often thought that business process automation is a type of AI. That the two technology terms are interchangeable. That they’re the same thing.

This is not the case. Business process automation is not AI.

Although they might, at a superficial glance, appear the same, each tool boasts a very different scope of functionality and use.

So, it’s time to put this common misconception to bed once and for all.

What is business process automation?

Business process automation (BPA) is software that lets machines complete repetitive tasks automatically. For example, data entry, email inbox management, document processing, etcetera.

Essentially, BPA handles robotic tasks that weigh down your human team. It’s a software tool used to increase productivity, efficiency and morale in offices.

Business process automation is not AI, it’s a rule-based system that uses conditional processing. This means that it works by following rules, step by step. You set these rules using ‘IF’ statements to outline when a process should trigger, and how to complete that process.

Automation software is not intelligent. It can and will only do what you tell it, in the way you tell it to. It won’t self-correct if something goes wrong, so you must ensure that your rules and triggers run as desired.

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an umbrella term for many different technologies. All of which seek to mimic human intelligence. For example, facial/image recognition and machine learning both fall under the AI umbrella. Business process automation is not AI and does not fall alongside these technologies.

The defining feature of artificial intelligence is that it aims to perform ‘intelligently’. This means that, given the same input, the machine would react the same way that a human being would. It can make decisions and draw conclusions from the data that it’s given.

Artificial intelligence needs masses of training data to work. This makes it an expensive option. It also means that AI tools are prone to displaying bias left in the training data.

The differences

It’s in the key differences between the tools that it becomes clear that business process automation is not AI.

  • AI thinks for you, you think for BPA

With AI, the technology thinks for you, making decisions from the data you give it. When it comes to business process automation, you do the thinking for the tool, and tell it what to do.

  • BPA takes the robotic, AI pretends it’s human

Artificial intelligence can, in theory, take on any challenge within its niche. (Regardless of whether the task requires human-level comprehension.) Business process automation, meanwhile, cannot handle non-repetitive tasks that need human flexibility.

  • AI needs data

Business process automation doesn’t need masses of data to work. It only needs rules. While AI uses and learns from data, automation simply organises it for you.

  • AI is more expensive

As a new and evolving technology, AI is expensive. In comparison, business process automation is more affordable.

Why the confusion?

But if business process automation is not AI, then why is it such a common misconception?

Although BPA doesn’t act intelligently, it can appear as though it does. When you can’t see under the hood at how and why it’s working, watching automation software complete menial processes makes the technology seem intelligent.

Plus, the popularity of AI attracts investors. As such, some businesses could be (both deliberately and otherwise) claiming that their automation is AI. This furthers the misconception that the two are the same thing. 

A clear distinction

Artificial intelligence as we know it today is still young. It’s got a long way to go and will likely grow into many revolutionary tools.

Automation, meanwhile, already brings benefits to businesses, without pretending it’s human. So no, business process automation is not AI. But it isn’t any less useful

Useful links

What is a rule-based system? What is it not?

Types of AI: distinguishing between weak, strong, and super AI

AI vs automation: why you (probably) only need the latter