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What is the Difference Between AI and Automation?

Maria Homann

Maria Homann

AI and automation are two terms that are often used interchangeably, probably because they serve similar purposes: to help businesses operate smarter and more efficiently. In this blog we give you a deeper understanding of the two terms and how they are different.

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What is automation?

What is AI?

Automation vs AI: key differences

How is AI used in automation?

How can you get started with AI-based automation?


Many companies today have already adopted automation due to its ability to effectively perform tasks at high speed and accuracy. The next step for these companies is AI.

Adding AI to automation adds another dimension to productivity and efficiency and lets these companies do so much more. It brings them towards so-called hyperautomation, which according to Gartner is “an unavoidable market state.”

But what is AI actually (in simple terms), and how can businesses use it in their automation efforts to achieve this next-level automation?

In this guide, we'll give you a basic understanding of AI in automation so that you can utilize its capabilities and bring your automation efforts to the next level.

What is automation?

Automation is about setting up robots to follow orders; “if I say 'A' the robot does 'B'”. We, the humans, define the rules, and the robots perform them. That's the essence of automation.

The point of this is to free humans from highly repetitive tasks that are tedious and error-prone.

When us humans perform repetitive tasks, we tend to not only get bored, but also make mistakes. Robots don't (unless they are set up incorrectly) and can also perform these tasks faster. They also don't get sick or take holidays, which is of great convenience to employers.

Of course, not all tasks are performed better by robots – which is why we shouldn't fear being replaced by them anytime soon. Instead, we should view automation as something that supports us and frees up our time, so that we can do other types of tasks that require critical and creative thinking.

"If I say A the robot does B.” We, the humans, define the rules, and the robots perform them. That's the essence of automation.

When robots perform the jobs robots are best at, humans can perform the jobs they are best at. The result is then more efficient work forces and happier employees. It's quite the win-win situation.

So how does automation work in practice? Well, to set up automation you have to find a way to tell the robot what to do. In order to do that, you have to 'speak robot'.

There are different approaches to this, depending on what you're automating. If you're automating tests, you can either code your way through it in a free, open-source tool such as Selenium, or you can automate without code with an automation tool such as Leapwork.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

The idea with AI (Artificial Intelligence) is to replicate humans on a cognitive level and thereby to enable robots to think, speak and even act like human beings.

Essentially, AI enables machines to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as understanding natural language, recognizing patterns, solving problems, and learning from experience.

Today, however, AIs aren't as smart as many make them up to be. What we have today is a junior version of intelligence - also called Narrow Artificial Intelligence (NAI).

You can place AI in two broad categories:

  1. Narrow AI: Also known as "weak AI," this type of AI is designed to perform a narrow task (e.g., facial recognition, internet searches, driving a car). Narrow AI is programmed to perform specific tasks and does not possess consciousness, genuine understanding, or the broader cognitive abilities of humans. It operates under a limited set of constraints and contexts.

  2. General AI: Also known as "strong AI," this is the type of artificial intelligence that can understand, learn, and apply knowledge in a way that is indistinguishable from that of a human. This form of AI does not yet exist and would be capable of performing any intellectual task that a human being can do.

Siri is an example of an NAI. It can do things like tell you jokes or inform you about the weather.

Another example is ChatGPT. Here's how ChatGPT defined itself, when we asked it:

"ChatGPT, like me, is an example of narrow AI. It is specifically designed to generate human-like text based on the input it receives. It does this by processing and analyzing large amounts of text data and learning how to predict the most likely subsequent word in a sentence, based on the words that came before." - ChatGPT

You might also have come across the term 'generative AI'. This is another subset of Narrow AI, where the focus is on creating new content, whether it be text, images, music, video, or other forms of media.

Important to know is that NAIs don't do much more than what they've been trained to do. They don't have a conscience, they don't have feelings, and they can't think outside the box. In that sense, they're still very far from replicating humans on a cognitive level.

A better way to describe AIs today is perhaps that it's a bit like a dog learning to give paw. You can teach it certain things, and at some point, it will understand how to do those things on its own. What AIs do to learn is that they seek patterns, and based on those patterns, they 'learn' how to perform certain actions.

When explained in this way, it sounds quite simple, but in reality, it is a rather complex technology, and it's instrumental when used in combination with automation.

Automation vs. AI: What's the difference?

This brings us to AI vs. automation.

As mentioned, AI and automation are often discussed together because they both involve using technology to perform tasks traditionally done by humans. However, while they overlap, they have distinct characteristics and applications.

The point of AI isn't to perform repetitive tasks like automation. Instead, AI is designed to mimic humans at a more intellectual level, and to be able to perform tasks that they learn by observing patterns and past outcomes.

The point of AI isn't to perform repetitive tasks like automation. Instead, AI is designed to mimic humans at a more intellectual level, and to be able to perform tasks that they learn by observing patterns and past outcomes.

In that sense, you could say that AI is a more advanced form of automation. It introduces an element of intelligence to automation, allowing it to perform a broader range of tasks and adapt over time based on new data and experiences. Automation, however, remains focused on consistency and reliability in performing repetitive tasks.

Where automation is about setting up robots to follow a set of pre-defined rules, AI is about setting up robots to make their own decisions (though still based on human input).

In other words, they're designed to learn and act on what they learn, rather than merely take orders.

This is why some people see a potential threat in AIs taking over jobs and even becoming so intelligent that they can outsmart humans (like we saw in this sci-fi action film featuring Will Smith).

However, AIs today are still very far from world-domination.

Narrow AIs are only trained with certain intentions, and although they can 'learn' within this area, they cannot go beyond that. For example, although IBM Watson was able to win a game of Jeopardy, it would not be able to win a game of chess.

Still confused?

We asked ChatGPT once again to help us define and provide some clarity on the differences and similarities of AI and automation. Here's what ChatGPT said:

Similarities between AI and Automation:

  1. Efficiency and Productivity: Both AI and automation are used to increase efficiency and productivity in various industries. They reduce the need for human labor for repetitive or easily codified tasks, thus speeding up processes and reducing errors.

  2. Task Execution: At a fundamental level, both AI and automation involve machines carrying out tasks. Whether these are physical tasks (like in manufacturing) or cognitive tasks (like data analysis), the goal is to reduce the human workload.

  3. Technological Progress: Both are results of advances in technology and are crucial in the ongoing transformation in industries such as manufacturing, services, and business processes.

Differences between AI and Automation:

  1. Complexity and Adaptability: Automation is typically rule-based and designed to perform a highly specific, repetitive task without variation. It doesn't "learn" from its experiences but rather follows pre-set instructions. In contrast, AI involves a level of complexity and adaptability; it can learn from data, improve over time, and make decisions based on its learning. AI can handle a wider variety of tasks and adapt to new situations that it wasn't explicitly programmed for.

  2. Scope of Application: Automation is generally applied to tasks that require consistency and precision but do not necessarily require adaptation or decision-making based on unknown variables. AI, particularly with the inclusion of machine learning, is applied to areas requiring decision-making that mimics human judgment, such as recognizing speech, interpreting complex data, or predicting trends.

  3. Technological Foundations: While automation can be as simple as a mechanical device designed to multiply human effort (like a lever or pulley system), modern automation often involves more complex machinery and software. AI, on the other hand, relies on sophisticated algorithms and computational theories like neural networks, natural language processing, and more, to perform tasks that require cognitive abilities.

  4. Goal Orientation: Automation's primary goal is to perform a task exactly and repeatedly with high reliability. AI's goals can be more aligned with mimicking human behaviors and performing tasks in a way that is perceived as intelligent or thoughtful.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of AI and automation to provide a clearer overview of their similarities and differences (and yes, you guessed it - ChatGPT also helped us here):

  Artificial Intelligence (AI) Automation
Purpose To mimic human cognitive functions and learn from data. To perform repetitive tasks efficiently without variation.
Complexity High; involves learning and decision-making capabilities. Lower; operates based on predefined rules and sequences.
Adaptability Highly adaptable; can improve and adjust over time. Static; does not adapt unless reprogrammed.
Scope of Tasks Broad; can handle a variety of tasks and scenarios. Narrow; designed for specific, repetitive tasks.
Learning Capable of learning and evolving from data. Does not learn; performs tasks as programmed.
Technological Base Based on advanced algorithms, neural networks, etc. Can range from simple mechanical systems to complex software.
Applications Diverse, including data analysis, natural language processing, etc. Common in manufacturing, data entry, repetitive office tasks, etc.
Goal Orientation Perform tasks in an intelligent, context-aware manner. Execute tasks exactly and reliably without deviation.

How is AI used in automation?

In many ways, AI perfectly complements automation. On one hand, an automation tool can e.g. transfer data from A to B, and on the other, the AI capability can interpret that data and respond to it.

For many businesses, AI is thus a brilliant way to augment their automation robots' abilities. To understand how it is used, it might be helpful to look at a few different types of AI:

Types of AI in automation

  • Machine Learning (ML): Enhances predictive modeling and decision-making in systems like maintenance forecasting and production optimization.
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP): Powers automated customer service tools like chatbots for natural language interactions and sentiment analysis.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR): Translates images of typed, handwritten, or printed text into machine-encoded text, used in document automation and data extraction tasks.
  • Computer vision: Applied in quality control for defect detection and in surveillance systems for automated monitoring.
  • Robotics: Combines AI with physical robots to perform complex, adaptable tasks in manufacturing and hazardous environments.
  • Expert systems: Uses rule-based AI to simulate the decision-making of human experts, useful in diagnostics and problem-solving applications.
  • Predictive analytics: Employs statistical and machine learning techniques to forecast future outcomes, crucial for logistics and supply chain management.
  • Speech recognition: Converts spoken language into computer-readable format for use in automated voice response systems.

Read more about some of these types in our guide to AI in automation.

AI and automation example

Imagine an enterprise that has a customer service center.

Every day, thousands of emails are received by the customer service center – so many that they cannot respond to those emails within a 24 hour time span with their existing resources.

Without adding human resources, the management wants to find a way that customers can be served right away, and either resolve their issue immediately by email or by being put in contact with a customer service person.

To do this, the company automates the email classification process. Based on key words that the automation robot finds in the emails, the robot sorts them into different folders, and assigns them to the right person.

This helps speed up the process, but it still doesn't allow the customer to retrieve an answer to their request right away. For this, AI is needed.

AI technology, more specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP), which is just one type of AI, can be used to interpret the intent of the request in the email. Based on that interpretation, the AI robot can then send out a response right away that immediately resolves the customer's problem.

How can you get started with AI-based automation?

As AI is becoming increasingly popular, many businesses wonder how they too can get started with the technology and implement it as a part of their digital transformation and application modernization efforts.

The challenge for these companies is finding the right business cases for AI, rather than implementing AI just for the sake of AI.

1. Identify business need

Businesses must identify what it is that they cannot solve with their current set of tools and pinpoint the bottleneck. So instead of saying, “everyone is using chatbots, should we too?” ask your customers for feedback on your services and investigate what the best technology is for solving that problem.

Are they saying the response time is too slow? Then a chatbot using NLP might help you speed up responses. Or are they saying the quality of responses is low? Then robotic responses are probably not your best bet.

Only when you've uncovered the real customer pains should you start looking at the technologies.

2. Research available technologies

Next should be a thorough research phase into which AI technologies to focus on. Here, you might want to bring in expert help as AI is a highly complex field with many more sub-technologies than those we've mentioned above.

3. Select your tool

Once you've decided on your technology, then comes another critical research phase – finding the right tool vendor. No matter what your needs are, it will pay off in the long run to select a tool that will allow you to work across technologies and enable you to integrate AI capabilities into your existing tool or IT landscape.

4. Implement

Last is implementation. In this phase, it can be good to test your new technologies internally first; employees are usually more forgiving than customers. Start with the small problem areas and learn to solve those efficiently. Once you've aced this, you're ready to scale it up.

Continue learning

Here are a few more resources you might find useful for understanding automation and AI:

About the author

Maria Homann has 5 years of experience in creating helpful content for people in the software development and quality assurance space. She brings together insights from Leapwork’s in-house experts and conducts thorough research to provide comprehensive and informative articles. These AI articles are written in collaboration with Claus Topholt, a seasoned software development professional with over 30 years of experience, and a key developer of Leapwork's AI solutions.