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I’ve been disparaging in this column about businesses rushing to adopt Robotic Process Automation as their first step toward technology transformation. RPA—which automates computer processes by learning from the actions of a human computer operator—isn’t transformative; it simply automates existing processes. And it’s usually done with an eye toward saving labor costs, rather than creating new value for customers.
But I had a visit last week from a man who disagrees. He’s Daniel Dines, CEO and co-founder of UiPath, which sells an RPA tool and ranked number one on Deloitte’s fastest growing tech companies list last year, with three-year growth of 37,000%. Dines argues RPA is just a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used in good ways and bad.
“The journey toward good processes is long and arduous,” he said. “Our theory is that if we can build a tool that is as easy to use as other tools—say Microsoft Excel—and put it in the hands of people on the ground, a certain percentage will be able to automate processes in a transformative way. This is not transformational in a direct sense; but it is transformational in an indirect sense.” Fair enough.
Incidentally, Dines told me his “passion in life” is reading fiction. Kafka is his “all-time favorite.” More recently, he enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow, which I would recommend as well.
And speaking of books, this weekend I read The Great Influenza, John Barry’s book about the deadly 1918 epidemic. It offers a couple of useful lessons for the current pandemic threat. One is that the 1918 flu largely disappeared during the summer of that year, but came back in an even more virulent form in the fall. The other is that officials at various levels ignored the experts and tried to downplay the threat—with disastrous consequences in the end. Always better to expose the facts.
You can read Fortune’s latest coverage of the virus here. News below.
Markets were up in Asia today, though not nearly enough to compensate for last week's omnishambles. The driver appeared to be imminent or potential rate-cutting moves by central banks. The Shanghai Composite was up a juicy 3.2% and the Nikkei 225 jumped by almost 1%. But in Europe, while things started similarly brightly, they unraveled within hours when authorities raised the continent's coronavirus risk level to high. At the time of writing, the Stoxx Europe 600 was down 1.7% and U.S. futures are firmly in the red. Sky News
Markets aside, the coronavirus marches on. The U.S. has had its second death. Berlin has its first case, as does Indonesia. There has now been a community transmission of the virus in Australia. Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a top advisor to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, has died from Covid-19. The Iranian death toll is now 54, and the Italian death toll is 34. South Korea, with 4,000 infections, has a death toll of 22. And Nike has had to shutter its European headquarters due to an employee's infection. Guardian
Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the race to be the Democrats' presidential candidate, following disappointing results in Nevada and South Carolina. It seems increasingly likely that the race will narrow to one between democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and centrist Joe Biden, though let's see how Super Tuesday pans out tomorrow—it will be the first real test for Michael Bloomberg (now the only billionaire in the running, following Tom Steyer's withdrawal) and could prove a deciding day for Elizabeth Warren. CNN
There are growing fears that trade talks between the U.K. and EU, which begin today, could break down within weeks. That would mean trade on WTO rules as of the start of 2021. So observers are hoping that the two sides will show some flexibility on their red lines soon. Bloomberg
AROUND THE WATER COOLER
Elon Musk reckons the Chinese economy will end up at least twice as big as the U.S. economy, and "maybe three times". The Tesla and SpaceX chief predicted this will have a military effect: "The foundation of war is economics…If you have half the resources of the counterparty then you better be real innovative, if you’re not innovative, you’re going to lose." CNBC
The Wall Street Journal reports that American Express salespeople have been "strong-arming" small business owners to boost signups for its credit cards. According to the piece: "the salespeople have misrepresented card rewards and fees, checked credit reports without consent and, in some cases, issued cards that weren’t sought." WSJ
The Financial Times has an interview with Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess, which focuses on the German giant's plans to leapfrog Tesla as the world's biggest electric carmaker. Remarkably, VW intends to make this shift profitable very early on, while rivals such as Toyota and GM only see petrol-level profitability coming many years into the future. FT
Aflac CEO Dan Amos has held that position for three decades now. His secret? Risk management. As Amos writes for Fortune: "Don’t risk a lot for a little. Don’t risk more than you can afford to lose. Always consider the odds…In every situation, Aflac carefully determines if potential benefits exceed possible consequences. We ensure that we are in fact taking a risk rather gambling resources, and we always make sure we are more likely to win than lose." Fortune
This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.