The (digital) robots are coming: Charlotte firm sets out to automate more work

Justin Adams, founder of Digitize.
Justin Adams, founder of Digitize.

Pitching potential clients, Justin Adams has sometimes had to explain that the robots he’s selling aren’t physical machines which will sit in a cubicle.

Instead, Adams and his Charlotte-based startup Digitize are trying to sell clients digital tools that use virtual robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate processes around the office. Accounting, compliance, database queries – many of the routine tasks office workers perform can now be done by computer systems.

It’s a technology that’s still young, but Adams, a former consultant at PwC, expects artificial intelligence to grow fast in the business world.

“There will be a period of demystification, where people understand what this is and what it isn’t,” said Adams.

Digitize recently raised $750,000 in its seed round of funding. Adams expects to double the staff of five at his uptown offices in the coming months.

Here’s how it works. Software can serve as a digital “robot,” doing tasks such as verifying documentation or looking up information in one database to copy into another. The “robots” receive login credentials like a real employee, and use artifical intelligence to learn and improve. Employees monitor and oversee them, but don’t do the work themselves.

“It’s basically software that mimics a human interaction,” said Adams. “If you watch the screen, it looks like someone’s working...You’re able to take the unstructured data that you couldn’t before.”

Giovanni Gallo, co-CEO of ComplianceLine, said Digitize is working with his company to use software for some processes they currently do by hand for compliance checks.

“They’re going to allow us to automate some logical but manual tasks, so we can focus more on providing expertise to our clients rather than doing legwork for them,” said Gallo. “If we’re going to a website 40 times a day to look up a small change in information, they’re looking at that.”

Digitize sets up the technology and can either help run it or hand it over to a company. Adams said large companies typically want to own the software, while smaller users are more likely to outsource the function.

There’s still something science fiction-esque about the technology – Artificial intelligence logging in and doing office jobs? – and one worry is that it will displace workers. Much like robots on factory floors that gradually displaced blue-collar workers, some fear the advance of artificial intelligence will push white-collar workers out of their jobs.

Adams and other backers of the technology say that by freeing up office workers from routine tasks, they’ll enable them to do more high-value and creative work.

“It’s more about taking the rote work away,” said Adams. He also said the technology could allow companies to bring more routine work they’ve outsourced to other countries back to the U.S.

Digitize board member Mark Linsz, former Bank of America corporate treasurer, said the technology will advance to do more and more rote tasks.

“The world is going to go this way,” said Linsz. “It frees your people up to do other, higher-value work. I don’t look at it as replacing people. I look at it as freeing them up.”

He also said it will increase accuracy for companies.

“When you have a very manual process, your potential for having problems increases,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo