Get ready for the bot revolution

Will bots liberate IT from mundane tasks, or will their development and upkeep only add to IT’s workload?

Get Ready for the Bot Revolution - illustration by Richard_Borge [SINGLE USE/Computerworld]
Richard_Borge

For today's overworked, time-strapped IT employees, bots are more than simply apps that perform automated tasks, like delivering weather reports or taking pizza orders. Rather, they're a respite from endless help-desk calls, constant software updates and tedious server maintenance jobs.

"Eighty percent of IT's effort is focused on mundane, grunt work — ditch-digging to keep the lights on with barely 20% spent on innovation," says Frank Casale, founder of the Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA). But bots promise to change all that, he says, by "taking on the bulk of the routine, dismal work that makes IT workers feel like human robots."

Computerworld illustration by Richard Borge - Get Ready for the Bot Revolution [2016/single use] Richard Borge

For example, AT&T is using bots to automate humdrum data-entry activities. And 1-800 Flowers has rolled out bots to help customers place online orders, while TV network CNN uses bots to deliver breaking news and personalized stories. By handling tasks that are either directly overseen by IT, or supported by IT resources, bots are fast becoming "magical for most IT departments," says Casale.

Bots are hot

Bot developers who need help pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat can turn to new technologies from Facebook, Microsoft and an emerging crop of bot-centric businesses. In April, Facebook announced the launch of Bot Framework, a platform that allows developers to build chatbots for use on a variety of messaging platforms, including Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype and WeChat. Since then, more than 11,000 bots have been created.

In March, Microsoft unveiled Microsoft Bot Framework — a set of tools for creating chatbots on multiple platforms, including Skype, Slack and Telegram. And an increasing number of startups, such as Pandorabots, Rebot.me, Imperson and Reply.ai, are releasing third-party platforms for people who want to build enterprise bots with a distinctly human touch.

In fact, according to a recent report published by Transparency Market Research, the global IT robotic automation market is expected to grow to $4.98 billion by 2020 — a 60.5% leap from 2014.

It's easy to understand why: Thanks to powerful platforms, you can develop a bot in about one-fourth the time it takes to build a standard mobile app. And because bots don't rely on costly servers, they're approximately 50% cheaper to build and maintain, according to Casale.

But for all the optimism about bots liberating IT from mundane tasks, there's plenty of concern regarding the impact of bots on overall IT workloads.

To be sure, bots promise to free IT workers for more important tasks by automating activities such as ticket management, server load balancing and customer service. However, as an increasing number of companies embrace bots as an easier and cheaper alternative to web apps, many IT professionals are questioning whether bots will create extra work for already beleaguered IT teams.

Get Ready for the Bot Revolution - illustration by Richard_Borge [SINGLE USE/Computerworld] Richard Borge

There are plenty of labor-intensive byproducts of the bot revolution. The list includes honing bot development skills, identifying new security vulnerabilities and addressing bot design flaws.

While there's no definitive solution for challenges such as those, savvy IT leaders are determining how best to embrace bots and tackling the challenges that come with these much-hyped app alternatives.

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