Think of a robot, and you’ll probably picture Wall-E, Optimus Prime or Robocop.

Sorry to disappoint, but the most widely-used robots are far more innocuous—usually in the form of articulated robotic arms, assembling our cars and phones without the need for human intervention.

This is robotic process automation (RPA), and it has been around for decades, Assistant Professor Foong Shaohui from the Engineering Product Development Pillar of the Singapore University of Technology and Design tells GovInsider. “Automotive manufacturers have been using industrial articulated robotic arms to assist in assembly of vehicles and even painting,” Foong explains.

The technology has emerged recently as a trend among governments, for two reasons. “RPA is getting even more prevalent now due to more affordable robotic systems,” Foong notes. According to him, the robotic systems used to be very expensive and could only be used in high-value products to recover the costs. Furthermore, there is an increasing lack of low-cost human labour, he adds.

GovInsider explains what RPA is and why it matters to government.

What is it?

RPA is the method of employing robotic systems to “perform tasks repeatedly and usually [at] high speed, without human intervention”, according to Foong.

This technology can take over high-volume, repeatable and often tedious tasks that were previously performed by humans. People are then freed up to do higher-value work which require empathy and a human touch.

While RPA used to be limited to tasks that are ‘simple’ and highly repetitive, like placing a screw in a hole, recent advances in machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) have led to much more sophisticated systems, he explains. Now, these systems can perform tasks that require cognition, such as analysing the size or orientation of a parcel and deciding on the best way to grab and lift it onto a moving conveyor belt.

As an example, autonomous vehicles employ RPA, coupled with artificial intelligence and advanced sensing technologies, Foong says.

Why is this important?

GovInsider has previously reported on the manpower crunch that Singapore and other governments in the region are facing. Agencies are turning to technologies like RPA to take some of the strain off their limited manpower.

Countries can offer greater varieties and more personalised versions of products at lower costs. With advances in robotic systems, cameras, laser systems and AI driving down costs, countries can produce many types of items, but at low quantities. Deploying such intelligent robotic systems are “easier and less costly” now, Foong says.

Besides hardware, RPA can be applied to software as well. Companies can create a virtual workforce that is rule-based. Human resources and administrative processes can be made smoother and more efficient as a result.

Government can learn from what is happening in the financial industry. Banks can automate anything from data entry, report generation, and credit card processing to fraud detection and audit support, according to Accenture Consulting.

And in the insurance industry, which typically requires a lot of paperwork, RPA can assist in auto enrolment, product administration, and policy document data transfers.

How does it affect government?

Like other forms of automation, RPA can augment existing workforces, and essentially allow them to do more with less. “They will not replace humans, but will help reduce errors and operate for longer periods of time,” says Foong. Correspondingly, this helps governments to increase productivity and lower costs.

Governments must also prepare citizens to work with these technologies. While RPA automates manual tasks, humans can specialise in roles that require emotion and empathy; healthcare and medicine come to mind. “With the increasing penetration of robotics and automation systems, the workforce of tomorrow must be able to adapt to work alongside these systems,” Foong notes.

What is happening in the region?

Government agencies in Singapore have successfully used RPA or elements of it, says Foong. The nationwide Electronic Road Pricing system, which allows automatic deduction of tolls and other driving-related expenses from motorists, is a good example, he shares. “Although there is no ‘robot’, it is a process that is now automated—no humans.”

Other examples from Singapore include the Housing and Development Board, which automates the cleaning and painting of building facades, according to Foong.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) automates inspection of tunnel infrastructure, and port operator PSA automates container handling.

In fact, all of the trains on the Circle Line of the country’s metro train network are fully automated, and do not require human drivers, according to the LTA.

And the Central Narcotics Bureau employs a robotic arm to speed up tedious tasks that would previously take a human hours.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has automated mail sorting, which used to be a manual task, according to Foong. Now, advanced postal automation systems sort letters at great speed—up to 41,000 mail items an hour.

And to improve on its maritime security, Malaysia also recently purchased unmanned aerial systems, or drones, Foong adds. These drones are equipped with detection and tracking systems that allow them to carry out counter-piracy, anti-smuggling operations, fisheries policing and border surveillance.

As technologies like RPA advance, it seems the robot uprising will probably be more behind-the-scenes than anyone expects.