The AI shakeup is here: Rob the Robot joins RMB workforce

This special podcast is brought to you by RMB and it’s a warm welcome to Reshnie Naidoo, who’s the Manager of RMB’s Robotics Centre for Excellence. Reshnie, I don’t know how many people know about the work that RMB has being doing on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, if you like, or on robotics, but you’ve been at it since the beginning of last year. Where did the idea come from to start using robots to do some of the repetitive work that isn’t really well-suited to human beings?

We constantly plug into global trends and changes – specifically in the financial services industries to learn more about automation and digitisation. We’ve been working on our process journey for a number of years now.

We have seen good results globally, as far as robotics are concerned – not only for the organisation but also for its people, in terms of removing some of that burden of running with manual and routine processes.

We started slowly at first with a few pilot initiatives to first see how our employees feel about it and how they would work together with this new, automated technologies before saying that it’s something that we would like to broad base within our organisation.

Reshnie Naidoo

You’ve got a big team – 20 people focussing on this area. Tell us about your first project, and then we can go into some of the others because it will give us a good, practical insight into the work you’re doing.

One of our first projects was looking at customer data. We experimented with capturing the same data in two different systems for two different purposes – using the exact same data. Initially we used people to capture the data in system A and then in system B. We then decided to put down a robot and configure that robot to capture the same set of data in both systems. What that effectively did was to enable a process that would normally take about 6 to 7 hours to be processed within at least an hour (that’s on the full transactional volume base). This first project proved to be quite successful.

Read also: Why SA shouldn’t fear robots, AI but rather embrace it to boost growth

It must have given you a proof of concept, I suppose, to say, ‘hang on – this is possible,’ and kick on from there. I read a little about Rob. Tell us about Rob the Robot.

We have many sponsors within the bank with a keen interest in robotics. In our finance division, they decided to run a proof of concept with Rob. Rob was asked to work on a process that would normally take an accountant roughly 3 to 4 days to process. The process involved the consolidation of a number of sources of data into our financial systems. Rob now runs that consolidation and has cut down the work significantly to now run it within an hour or two.

Wow, from four days to two hours. It shows that the application is very strong from an efficiency point of view, but what about the people?

We have introduced robots in a collaborative way to work together with people. Our people and the robots sit side-by-side to enable the people to see how the bots are processing transactions, resulting in our people requesting for the bots to do more of the routine processing. The reason for this is that they’re dealing with a number of disparate processes at the moment that takes them away from their focus on clients and on the core services that they need to provide. Our people are now able to focus on providing a better differentiated service to clients. We’re not looking at removing jobs, rather changing the nature of the work that we do. We do this to ensure that the people are able to focus on primary value add and deliver a better service to stakeholders. The robots are there to help them do that.

The Shadow Dexterous robotic hand, manufactured by The Shadow Robot Company, grips a human hand in a ‘Handshake’ motion, a gesture indicating a greeting during a demonstration of its agility in an arranged photograph in London, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Photographer: Luke MacGregor /Bloomberg

So, it’s a much more interesting day at work for a lot of people who would have been doing drudgery in the past. Are these robots a threat? Many people in the world are worried about robots, just ask Donald Trump and his supporters in the USA, but once they’ve been exposed to it, do they like it?

The approach we took (and it’s an approach we always take at RMB) is to take this journey together with our people. Financial services is a very people oriented business. We don’t manufacture products, but we provide services. As such we are always looking for knowledgeable people who are able to deliver a differentiated service.

Read also: Get ready for AI shake-up: How robots are changing the world as we know it

Robotics will help people who deliver this service and support them in being more effective. The feedback that we’ve received ranged from “can the bot do more of the routine processes for me so that I can actually do more for my client?” and “I can now increase the number of calls I’m taking on because I’m not looking for pieces of data that’s sitting in different systems.” to “Now that I’ve received the consolidated data, I can produce more insight driven reports.”

They’ve been asking us to take on more of the processes that they see holding them back from delivering this primary value. On a broader level, we’ve also started engaging with our employees to look at how work is changing and how we can support them in transitioning into taking on more.

One often hears from within the banking institutions that to get into the system is a problem because you have to rewrite the code and then there’s lots of security issues involved. Has this been a challenge when you brought robots into the workplace?

Robots and robotic technology is relatively simple to deploy. It does not rely on heavy code and database integration. It is a simple configuration software. In other words, we map out the process with the business rules, which allows us to deploy this technology quite quickly.

Robotic software essentially functions like a virtual worker. It logs onto the application and typically does the same task driven function that a human would do. To enable the technology to do that, we need to ‘teach’ the technology the work that people are currently perform. That way it’s less code heavy and more configuration based. It also enables us to change that configuration based on regulatory and client requirement changes which increases our ability to be more flexible and responsive.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

But when you go forward now, with things like speech-recognition, artificial intelligence (AI) and so on, are you expecting that this is going to make the role of the robot even more relevant?

We see AI as Intelligent Augmentation. Our take on it, is to be able to take large volumes of data and use AI to provide trends and patterns. Another advantage is the ability to take large volumes of documents, process them and then give us insights – whether it’s recognition of the data or trends and patterns.

We are hoping to apply this functionality in cases where our employees need AI to assist them and augment them in performing more complex tasks and work. This augmentation will crunch the varied sources of insights and people will make sense of these outcomes and patterns thereby enabling more informed decision making. It will also improve our ability to comply with regulations because we would be able to consume larger volumes of data and analyse that data at a much faster pace.

You’ve already been at it for two years now, as mentioned right in the beginning. The Centre for Excellence began in February 2016. Have you made more progress in this time than you thought you might?

We have made good progress in that we’ve automated roughly 22 processes thus far and we continue to do more. There’s an ongoing book of work, but in my view, we’ve made the most progress in the people space, in terms of taking people on the journey. We have been guided by them in the process which allowed us to gradually change the nature of the work and the way we work.

We are also at the moment exploring AI/natural language platforms. The insights we’re getting out of these platforms is phenomenal – especially the opportunities to offer more solutions to our various Stakeholders.

I suppose if you have a look at it from a broader perspective it does open up new areas for your skilled workers, but there’s still a big unemployment issue in SA, and again, I was reading somewhere about what RMB is doing for youth development and creating employment in non-banking fields. So something that doesn’t directly benefit you. Have you got an update on that for us?

Graduate employment and youth development are two of the top priorities that we pursue at RMB. We are keen on exploring the frontiers of how we can push our youth further to reach their potential both within Financial Services and more broadly. We do see this drive plugging into robotics as well, in that we are very reliant on people with the necessary data science and developer skill sets to configure and manage these robots. Initiatives such as the RMB Graduate Recruitment Programmes enable us to attract young talent into RMB to provide the skills for the new growth areas.

Reshnie Naidoo is the Manager of the RMB Robotics Centre for Excellence and this special podcast was brought to you by RMB.

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