Is artificial intelligence a threat to the profession?

Abacus
istock_Stephen_Barnes

When the conversation amongst those who claim to be experts turns to those trades that are most likely to be re-engineered by artificial intelligence, our profession regularly seems to get a mention.

Many of us might argue that such an analysis merely betrays a lack of understanding of the services that accountants can provide to their clients.

In reality, various types of AI have been making our lives easier for the last half century and it could be posited considerably longer. In China and probably elsewhere, the abacus has been going for millennia.

Back in the good old days, it was typewriters, dictaphones and comptometers (younger readers who are baffled might just find a picture via a Google search), which lessened the burden on secretaries and comptometer operators.

These gave way to calculators, which soon became pocket calculators and more recently mainframe office computers, PCs, laptops and tablets.

Underpinning each of these pieces of kit was some kind of programming, which has become increasingly sophisticated with each new generation of technology.

As a result, anyone who started in the profession 30 or more years ago will have seen incredible change in almost every facet.

Auditing used to be a manual job for juniors using coloured pens. Now, computers do the grunt work, leaving accountants to interpret and analyse. In reality, the computers could do that just as well too.

On the tax front, much of the calculation is now done by budget-priced programs where in the past the numerically talented and highly intelligent were in the vanguard. Interpreting and sourcing legislation has also changed beyond recognition, now that it no longer requires an expert's memory since a database will find that vital statute or case for you in seconds.

The doom and gloom merchants will quickly point out that continuing developments in these fields will render many of those at the bottom end of the profession unemployed within a generation and possibly much sooner.

However, clients still like people and human interaction. Despite the propositions in sci-fi movies, computers will never be able to provide this service. Similarly, they will probably struggle to deal with the foibles of those who wish to act completely irrationally ie most of my clients.

More cynically, those clients who wish to have a product that is pushing at the boundaries of legality (perish the thought) might not want to have an audit trail retained by a computer, where a forgetful accountant could save them from a difficult day in front of a tax inspector or worse in court sometime in the dim and distant future.

There is no doubt that the accountancy business will change beyond recognition in the next few decades. However, I still remain firmly of the belief that those in positions of influence today ie partners or colleagues aspiring to the title have little to fear for the majority and probably the whole of the rest of their careers. The only slight proviso here is that with life expectancy rising and the global economy collapsing, those careers might need to endure until they are in their 80s.

About Philip Fisher

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18th Sep 2018 10:32

So... we're to rely on people who want to push legal boundaries for the continuation of our profession. Interesting take. Although some might say that is exactly what a chunk of the profession do already so no change there.

More seriously, I don't see the prospect of a genuine AI as comparable to the introduction of calculators or computers.

The introduction of these pieces of technology were merely tools that enabled the accountants of the day to do their job more efficiently. You still needed the accountant to know what figures to put in the calculator/computer, and to know what the end product meant. The technology merely gave them a quicker and more convenient tool to do that part of their job.

The holy grail for AI, is a machine that thinks as good as, and eventually better than, a human. So all the information that the old accountant would type into the computer and interpret, that will be fed into the AI (probably directly from a bank feed), and the AI then has the ability to interpret that information and provide advice to the end user. If the holy grail is achieved, then it's not impossible to think of the AI machine being able to provide the advice accountants do.

As the article suggests, there will initially be those who don't adopt the new method (just like there are still hunter gatherers in a world that adopted agriculture thousands of years ago), but these people will be in a minority, which will reduce with time.

For once, I think the complexity of our tax system is a good thing for the profession. The myriad of legislation, guidance and case law a small business has to navigate simply to claim expenses for their travel costs presents a difficulty for the AI. I guess if the AI is as good as a human, then it to will be able to learn the rules, but I think it'll take a long time before they are able to properly program the machine on the intricacies of tax law.

I guess the programming process would be quicker if the government got together and simplified the tax rules and other regulations business face, but I think we'll be safe enough on that front.

So whilst I agree with the article that it'll be some time before we have to genuinely worry about what AI could do to the profession, if it is actually achieved, then I believe the professions days are numbered (along with many other professions).

On the flip side, AI has still to be developed, and might never be, so we might be fine after all.

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By Maslins
18th Sep 2018 10:44

I do think the accounting profession, at least at the small biz end, will be decimated in the next few decades.

What's currently considered "low end" work (compliance, getting accurate data from client to HMRC/Cos Hse) will become automated. Income/expenditure will increasingly become electronic, and tagged with plenty of info enabling the software to accurately know what was bought. There will be a streamlined flow of this info to HMRC, without the need for humans to copy/paste numbers from one bit of software to another.

What's currently considered "high end" work (offering advice on how to improve things) can be boiled down to algorithms. Is X high relative to Y? If so, recommend action Z.

From a selfish perspective I'm not too fussed. In the short term it'll likely mean more profits for senior accountants as they need fewer juniors to do the same amount of work, as software gradually improves. As is often the case, the young/lower skilled will be screwed first.

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19th Sep 2018 08:53

If the standard of AI "threatening" us is that displayed by HMRC's phone robot, I'm not even a little bit worried.

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19th Sep 2018 23:34

As AI continues to evolve and improve, it will definitely take out the small accountants who manage very basic level type of stuff. But I don't think it will ever replace a CFO or accountants who are doing some serious excel wizardry.

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24th Sep 2018 12:28

I'd like to see AI answer the questions we get on AWEB. Come to think of it, AI might be asking some of the questions!

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By Locutus
to Red Leader
24th Sep 2018 14:01

That's a really interesting thought!

Will AI be "clever" enough to understand the extent of its ignorance in certain areas and ask other AI bots or humans for assistance?

Will AI also be able to understand the concept in a complex problem that some aspects of the problem are fundamental and other aspects are trivial, so that it doesn't have to waste trillions of processing cycles making sense of the trivial?

I suppose it will eventually.

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to Locutus
24th Sep 2018 14:24

You've taken my facetious thought and raised it to a whole new level.

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By newpipe
29th Oct 2018 17:50

Artificial Intelligence was always the biggest revolution that gets everyone attached to the new habituations and lifestyle. More than anything, we have to learn a lot about the technology and implement things to move forward in life. One such biggest concept is crowns lite app which is so far the biggest terrarium tv alternative that hosts 3D movies as well along with the tv shows and programs.

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