What's the Difference Between RPA and AI?

Because artificial intelligence (AI) is relatively new to the HR space, it's understandable for there to be confusion about terms being used. In particular, I encounter the terms Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and AI assistants (i.e., chatbots) incorrectly used interchangeably. So, I thought I'd write a quick blog explaining what they are and how they're different.


To begin with, RPA and AI are indeed very different technologies, though they can be used in combination. RPA is software that can be configured to literally replicate human user behaviors, typically keyboard entries. I like to compare RPA to a player piano. A player piano uses software (previous to computerization rolls of punched paper) to literally replicate the depression of piano keys in accordance with the notes and timing prescribed by the composer. This is why it looks like the player piano is being played by an invisible person. With RPA software, the same thing occurs except instead of a piano keyboard it's a computer keyboard and the keys don't actually move. 

AI is completely different and a bit harder to explain. First, AI relies on a supercomputer, like IBM's Watson or Google's DeepMind. RPA requires no supercomputing power. The AI supercomputer runs a suite of software to perform natural language processing, data retrieval, cognitive logic and machine learning. Needless to say, AI is much more complicated than RPA.

RPA is good for highly repetitive, non-ambiguous data processing tasks, such as entering data from a spreadsheet or pre-formatted invoice into a separate software application. As long as the format of the data source, data standards and data entry procedures are consistent and routinized, an RPA application can be configured to perform the manual tasks instead of a human being. Unlike an automated upload program, however, the RPA software must replicate the actual human tasks. While they keying may be faster than a human, the same sequence of tasks must be followed. Therefore, performing the task with RPA can take considerably longer than an interface program. The advantage, however, is that RPA applications can be configured relatively quickly, almost on the fly compared to programming an interface. 

AI assistants, or chatbots, are better suited to answering questions and processing individual transaction requests. An AI assistant, for example, can retrieve a users online pay stub by asking the user for the pay period and necessary login credentials. The seemly magical power of AI is its ability to respond to requests using natural language and search available data for the most relevant response. 

I hope you found this quick explanation helpful. If you would like more detail, you might start with these Wikipedia articles. 

Wikipedia article on Chatbots

Wikipedia article on Robotic Process Automation