robotic process automation

NASA’s newest employee isn’t human

One of the newest employees at the NASA Shared Services Center can copy and paste text, open emails, move folders and many other tasks. That might sound routine, but the new hire, Washington, isn’t a person -- it’s a bot.

Much like a human employee, however, Washington has its own computer, its own email account, its own permissions within applications and its own role within the organization.

“These [bots] are doing work that any employee can do today,” Jim Walker, a NSSC shared services portfolio manager, told GCN. “We’re really thinking of it as a digital employee.”

The Washington bot went live earlier this month with its first application, helping with human resources tasks. It takes information from emails that are sent to its inbox, copies it and uses it to populate files in an HR case management application.

”When someone in NASA wants to hire a new employee they need to see if that person meets all of the requirements for suitability within NASA,” Walker said about the work Washington is currently doing. The automated data-shuffling frees up HR staff time for more complex, higher-value tasks.

NSSC plans to roll out new applications within the coming weeks. These include an application for the CFO’s office that will distribute funds received from Congress into different accounts and another application for the CIO’s office that would automate purchase requests.

“We looked for really low-hanging fruit,” Walker said about the early implementations, adding that the agency wants to make sure the automation works well before moving onto bigger projects.

NSSC plans to open up the use of these bots to the rest of NASA later this year. Early meetings have already resulted in interest from other parts of the agency, Walker said, including security officials who wonder if bots could be used to monitor security logs in near real time.

These bots are built using a process called robotic process automation. Building a bot like Washington takes four to five weeks, according to Walker.

“I think this is the next” word processor or spreadsheet, Marc Mancher, a principal of federal strategy and operations at Deloitte, said of RPA’s vast potential for use with administrative tasks. Mancher and his team helped NSSC with the pilot phase of the project and the implementation of Washington.

Walker agreed with this assessment, adding that even as government looks to slim down, its responsibilities are constantly growing. The bots, which can run 24/7, can help NASA by taking on time-consuming, manual tasks and allowing its humans to engage in higher level work.

Washington is a rules-based bot, which means it doesn’t deviate from a prescribed set of directions. But Mancher said he expects future versions to have more cognitive capabilities, allowing them to learn on the job.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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