Is RPA AI? No — but they overlap



Q: Is RPA AI?

A: RPA – short for robotic process automation – is a branch of digital automation that can operate a computer in the same way that a human would. This doesn’t make RPA artificially intelligent. RPA and AI, though they can sometimes overlap, are still two distinct technologies.

Allow us to explain.


Defining terms

The first step in answering the ‘is RPA AI’ question starts with defining the terminology at play.

  • What is RPA?

RPA, short for robotic process automation, is a name for software that automates tasks through the graphical user interface (GUI). It earns its name because it works using software bots, which copy tasks as a human would do them in order to automate them.

There are a few terms in this overview to highlight. GUI refers to the display a human can see on the computer when they use programs and such. By working on this GUI level, then, RPA mimics human activity on a machine. (Think clicking the right series of buttons to complete administrative tasks.)

Bots, meanwhile, are not physical robots. Rather, the term refers to software that completes tasks without a human interfering.

  • What is AI?

Artificial intelligence is an umbrella term. It covers a myriad of technologies, all of which aim to mimic human intelligence. Examples include machine learning, cognitive automation, computer vision, and so on.

That’s a lot of jargon to break down too. Cognitive automation is the name given for automation practices that involve cognitive computing — a technology that mimics the way the human brain works.

Machine learning is another subset of artificial intelligence, concerned with allowing machines to learn from input (and thus improve at their given task over time).


How they differ: actions vs intelligence

So, if AI is an umbrella term, does RPA fall under it? Is RPA AI?

The short answer is no.

One simplified way to think of the difference between RPA and AI is action vs thought. RPA automates human action on a computer. AI aims to simulate human intelligence and thought.

Unlike AI technologies, RPA isn’t intelligent. It can’t adapt if something goes wrong. It’s useful for automating and scripting actions without much technical know-how, but it’s not going to do anything more than what you teach it to do. It won’t provide analysis; it won’t learn. What RPA is, is an extra pair of (metaphorical) hands to handle grunt work and repetitive tasks. It’s an assistant to humans, not a replacement.

AI, meanwhile, is all about trying to mimic human thought. AI-powered technologies can learn or adapt. They include programs that analyse and infer from data. They improve with time and training. But when it comes to automating repetitive workflows, AI technology is overkill.


The relationship between RPA and AI

The answer to the ‘is RPA AI?’ question may be ‘no’, but that doesn’t mean the two don’t overlap. While the terms are not interchangeable, there is a relationship between the technologies.

This is because RPA pairs well with artificial intelligence programs. When integrated, RPA and AI mean a wider variety of business workflows become automatable. Automation won’t need to stick to frequent or repetitive tasks. With AI assistance, it can assist with more complex jobs as well.

RPA has grown in popularity while AI has grown in capability. Now, the two are reaching a point where we can use them together to unlock more functionality.

In short, the relationship between RPA and AI is growing closer. As time goes on, the boundary that separates RPA and AI will likely diminish.


Is RPA AI?

Eventually, most RPA software may well come with AI capabilities as standard. But we aren’t there yet. For now, the two are separate technologies that work well together.

The way to remember the difference between the two technologies is that RPA automates actions on a computer. AI, meanwhile, allows that computer to simulate the human thought and intelligence that goes behind those actions.


Useful links

The new buzzword: what is robotic process automation?

Current AI capabilities: impressive, but exaggerated

Automation tools: which do you need?


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