Happy 100th Birthday, Robots!

2020 is a special year for robots. Exactly 100 years ago, the word ‘robot’ was used for the first time in a play by the Czech author Karel Capek, titled R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robots). In Capek’s play, roboti – or artificial people – are used as cheap labor forces. At first, things look bright in the robot-based economy, where production costs plummet. But things quickly take a grim turn, when the roboti organize a rebellion that ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race.

R.U.R. was an instant hit. Two years after its premiere in Prague, it was already running on Broadway and being translated into 30 languages. Even today, a full century later, Capek is sometimes hailed as ‘a prophetic writer’. At first sight, this makes sense. Our economy has become largely robot-based. Successive waves of automation have transformed society, drastically reduced production costs and increased quality. The ubiquity of automation has kindled fears that robots might steal our jobs (see this article) or that Artificially Intelligent Superpowers may one day extinguish mankind.

But there’s a few things that Karel Capek didn’t foresee. Of course, I’m talking about the spectacular growth of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a software technology that allows companies to automate repetitive processes and that’s taking the business world by storm. With RPA you can create software robots that act as virtual colleagues and automatically perform a wide range of repetitive tasks.

RPA software providers are breaking funding records and growing at an unprecedented rate, due to this technology’s wide applicability. Now that’s one our prophet didn’t see coming. In fact, who could have thought, that 100 years after Capek’s masterwork, robots would be processing invoices, entering sales orders and maintaining master data, rather than conspiring to end the human race?!

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