Uncharted Waters

May 25 2016   7:46PM GMT

Automation In Real Life

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Business Process Automation

Are you ready for the impending robot takeover? I’m not.

Most of the automation I’ve seen slips into our frame of mind through simple business processes. Systems administrators make careers on this. When I first started working in technology, admins were automating as much as possible to make spare time for more important things, like DOOM. The rest of the business world caught wind of that and decided they wanted in. More automation, more productivity, more profits.

I recently wrote about the deskilling effect automation has on trades. Today I’m going to take a slightly different angle. I want to talk about the reality of technology and automation, and how that changes the work. The tasks we perform every day.

I worked with a company a few years ago helping to build a system for clinicians to document surgical cases. President Obama was recently elected and had funded a program to help healthcare providers switch from a mostly paper documentation system, to something digital and online. Paper records take time to get from one doctor to another, the fastest ways at the time were the good ol’ fax machine, or a phone call. The idea was that digital records were going to literally save lives.

The digital products seemed pretty cool in demos, but no one wanted to change. So we made something that hid the change. Doctors write with a special pen, sync it to a USB cable connected to a computer, a little fairy dust gets sprinkled on the data, and then some how printed text appears on a monitor. That fairy dust was a a handwriting recognition engine that made guesses about what a person scrawled down on paper.

Have you seen a lot of handwriting? Let me tell you, most of it isn’t very good. And that makes it hard for software to guess. We tried to get more accurate by recognizing that some fields would only have numbers, date fields for example. Or that some other fields might only have three or four different drug names. That helped, but the engine still got things wrong.

The tooling got things wrong enough that we had to create review and approval workflows so that someone could make a pass on the documentation later to say this is right, that is wrong, and I don’t even know what that is. That product that was supposed to automate away the dirty bits of the work, didn’t quite fit how people worked. And because of that they just stopped using it. This wasn’t just the company I worked for. It happened at a mass scale with electronic healthcare record companies. Overall cost went up, data was no more portable than it was on a piece of paper, and lives were not saved.

Sometimes, the possibility of automating my day to day life seem millions of miles away. But then, seeing random videos like this remind me that other areas of tech are not too far off. While process automation clearly fails in some places, no one really wants to change how they work when the benefits are out of reach, it leaps right in front of us in other ways. The tesla in that video clip, sleeping driver and all, is something we are going to see a lot more of. Right now, my understanding is that they can only autopilot while on a freeway.

In software, there are groups of people terrified of losing their work to automation. Having seen how it works in business, I’d guess that a scenario like that isn’t going to happen in the immediate future. Self-driving cars are certainly a good reminder that I should keep an eye out and think about the future.

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