RPA - parsing the BS in a fast changing world

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett October 31, 2019
It's always interesting to compare one person's take on a topic and another. RPA 'inventor' Blue Prism is a case in point. But there are others. 

Cartoon robots look at young man lined up for job interview © pathdoc - shutterstock

Earlier in the week, Chris Middleton penned Commercialising RPA - Blue Prism Chairman on "a technology that got invented in the UK - and no one even noticed." He said:

But if tech success is about making a big noise, the UK’s silence about Blue Prism has been deafening. Is this one reason for the widespread belief that – with a handful of exceptions – only the US, China, or India can launch a successful software company and grow it worldwide, without selling out to a US or Japanese giant? Even DeepMind didn’t manage that.

A challenge, then, is that – beyond its shareholders’ volatile support - which has seen market cap tumble in six months – Blue Prism has been expanding in a freezing vacuum in the UK. It’s hard to imagine the same media silence happening to a company in Silicon Valley, with its temperate tech-investment climate and the oxygen of relentless publicity.

For his part, Phil Fersht wrote on his blog: Daddy's back to shape Blue Prism's technology roadmap for the next iteration of the RPA kingdom in which he opined that:

In typically British fashion, Blue Prism has ignored the noise generated for its high-impact competitors, but now needs to come back aggressively into the market with a laser-focused technology roadmap that is unique to clients and aligned with their deep-set needs.

At one level these are remarkably similar opinions. But who might those same competitors be? Fersht again:

While AA and UiPath have been publicly biting chunks out of each other, Blue Prism has soldiered on with its business with minimal noise and hype.  In fact, the reverberations from Las Vegas and New York only help drive more attention to the industry and Blue Prism hopes to capitalize... not dissimilar to the amazing work IBM Watson did creating an AI industry for everyone.

Aaaah - marketing and hype...we're back to two of Phil and my favorite hobby horses. To be fair, I have largely stayed on the RPA sidelines. Fersht covers this well in both his firm's research and in unvarnished personal blogposts. Even so, I can't help wondering whether RPA has run its course. At least in its current iteration. This is something that Fersht has trumpeted recently in his all too familiar tough love tones. In a story titled: UiPath hyped a market that simply wasn’t there. Now we must build one that's REAL - one we can TRUST, I can almost see Phil's fingers on fire as he takes another vendor to the woodshed for bad behavior, Fersht outdid himself with this gem:

Let’s make no bones about it, this has been one sorry saga.  All we could do was warn the industry that cheesy marketeers, some lousy paid-for analysts and poorly-informed investors were forming a vicious web of bullshit that would take a solution with real potential and fake a market that bore no reflection of the one we originally dreamed up seven years ago.

And don’t say we didn’t warn anyone over the past year that the RPA market was in grave danger of being hyped out of existence.

The context here is interesting. UIPath allegedly spent some $8 million on a Vegas shindig while almost immediately afterwards firing some 400 employees. The scuttlebutt is that UIPath investors are scared of UIPath's cash burn rate. Something had to give and UIPath's management dutifully obliged by wielding the ax on employees. 

But I think the crux of the issue comes down to Fersht's observation that:

Releasing a Forrester Wave as the news of its layoffs broke, simply to drown out its layoff noise, where the analyst is clearly biased towards the firm (which also employs his son) just served to anger people who are craving some humility and less bragging.

This is reflective of the cynicism in the worst of Silicon Valley hype. It might play well to the VV's (Venture Vultures) in the Valley and those with an eye to relentless competition bashing. But companies who make these unforced errors forget that it's a turn off for potential customers. They really don't like it one bit. The flip side goes like this: if they're going to resort to these kinds of tactics, what does that mean for me once I'm contracted? What's going to be in that contract? As Fersht says, trust goes flying out the window and, in some cases, never to return. 

From time to time, Fersht gets whacked by those whose sensitivities can't stand the disinfecting spotlight that Fersht uses in his personal blog. I have no sympathy for those kinds of loser. If anything, I admire Fersht's unwavering view that it is vital to keep holding vendors' feet to the fire. The recipients of such critique may not like it but then I'd say: hold up the mirror and ask yourself honestly - is he right to hold that position? Do we really care enough to focus on what matters? 

In that context I prefer Blue Prism's more sober approach. In discussing the apocalyptic rhetoric we see around mass redundancies from robot incursions, Blue Prism's chairman Jason Kingdon says:

This whole media debate is wrongly informed by the idea that somehow there is a finite set of tasks and, once these things have gone, there's nothing left for anyone to do. In fact, it’s the complete inverse of that: we expand the economy, we expand the number of things that are out there to do and the number of tasks that can be done.

Another key aspect of robotics is that they mimic human beings. The reason they do that is the world is built for humans. So one of the things that gets missed in all this is that robots add things and drive consumption, because they consume things themselves. They actually grow the amount of economic activity, not reduce it. I don't think people understand that AI and robotics expand the economy.

I can hear more of that any day.