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Accounting giants invest billions in generative AI
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Accounting giants join AI investment rush

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Thanks to the hoopla surrounding ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools, private and public investors are caught up in a funding frenzy recently characterised by the FT as “the latest Californian gold rush”.

6th Jun 2023
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Some of accounting’s biggest names are among those betting billions of dollars on the latest of wave AI, as publicly listed stocks in the US associated with the phenomenon have grown nearly $4tr (trillion).

Against this backdrop, PwC unveiled a $1bn AI investment plan at the end of May. The PwC announcement highlighted the Big Four firm’s AI consulting track record and continuing relationship with Microsoft. Already, PwC has devised and implemented systems based on OpenAI’s GPT-4 tools via Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI servers within insurance, aviation, healthcare and other industry sectors.

Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley the world’s biggest accounting software developer Intuit has been spending billions over the past four years to transform itself into an AI-powered small business platform.

Even before he took over as CEO at the beginning of 2019, Intuit’s Sasaan Goodarzi told AccountingWEB firmly, “Don’t call us an accounting platform. We’re not in the accounting business.”

Before his ascent to the top, Goodarzi was the figurehead for the company’s QB Assistant AI bot. Little has been seen or heard of it since its launch in 2017, but that’s not the point according to Goodarzi. 

“This is about fundamentally changing the industry,” he explained at the time. “This is the perfect example of how we’re leveraging data and applying AI to it.”

Practical finance applications

Elsewhere within the platform, machine learning tools are being used to assess loan applications for QuickBooks Capital and are also being applied to TurboTax algorithms to interpret the US personal tax code. 

Some of these enhancements were set out in a corporate blog in March stressing the scale of Intuit’s investment in AI innovation, if not the dollar value: “Our platform delivers 730m AI-driven customer interactions per year, generates 58bn machine learning predictions per day, and provides 400,000 customer/financial attributes per small business.” 

Just in case the hype around ChatGPT distracted you, the blog was keen to insist: “We are well down the path of deploying this technology and are excited to deliver GAI [generative artificial intelligence] experiences directly to customers, as well as help our experts be more efficient and do more to help customers.”

To get a more tangible measure of Intuit’s commitment, the company spent $2.3bn on R&D in 2022, 40% up on 2021 and almost $1bn more than it spent in 2020. According to the product development commentary in Intuit’s 2022 10-K filing, a “significant” proportion of this money is being spent on “enhancing products with financial recommendations, personalization and ease of use enabled by AI and other advanced technologies”.

For the current year to date, R&D spending is tracking at 9% ahead of last year.

Accountant perspectives

Intuit has backed its business case with extensive customer research, some of which it made public in the UK this spring. The overwhelming majority of UK accountants surveyed by the vendor (86%) felt AI would play a role in helping them to be business advisers to their clients. Some 95% plan to spend an average of £10,000-£24,999 on new technology this year, with 45% stating that AI tools were the most likely area of investment.

When asked about the specific ways in which they could help client businesses do better, 44% highlighted the richer insights from AI that allowed them to offer better cashflow forecasts and advice.

For 39%, AI would give them more time to offer broader business advice and 35% said it would help spot any potential problems quicker with real-time insights. 

As AccountingWEB columnist Philip Fisher highlighted recently, any new technology has positive and negative implications. For example, much of the grandstanding publicity and investment hype we’ve seen recently harks back the old threat that if you don’t get onboard NOW, you’re toast.

So while the direction of travel is clear, there are genuine fears and doubts about how AI technology will be controlled and who will do that. This concern recently prompted tech industry leaders and 31,000 other people to call for a six-month moratorium on generative AI research.

While advancing its $1bn credentials almost as a rebuttal to the AI moratorium petition, PwC nevertheless acknowledged the need for governance and accountability of AI systems. To try and bolster trust in AI platforms - and “unlock greater value and outcomes for PwC clients” - the firm is promoting a Responsible AI framework to help clients build fairness, transparency and “explainability” into their OpenAI deployments. 

When everyone is being swept up by the inflated expectations of market hype, it is always worth taking a pause and questioning whether to follow the herd impulse. As many a tech early adopter will tell you, the pioneers are usually the ones who end up with arrows in their backs. That’s not to say you should ignore the potential gains (and threats), but make a point of taking it at your own pace. That will allow you to follow the experiences of others and learn what mistakes to avoid.

 

Replies (4)

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By Hugo Fair
06th Jun 2023 23:09

"I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air."

All together now ...

Thanks (3)
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
07th Jun 2023 12:58

Shortly after I posted this article, Intuit CEO Sasaan Goodarzi popped up on LinkedIn with his latest analysis on the prospects for generative AI within the evolving QuickBooks platform. The post heralds the arrival of Intuit's "proprietary" (ie not Open) GenAI Operating System (GenOS).

The code will empower Intuit technologists "to design, build and deploy breakthrough generative AI (GenAI) experiences with unparalleled speed", he wrote, fuelling the company's ability to innovate at pace and “automagically” generate insights and actions for customers to put more money in their pockets.

It's breathless stuff that references how GAI tools within Mailchimp are being used to help customers refine their marketing mailings (an example I didn't fit into the article), but doesn't specify any other developments or examples that weren't already in the public domain.

It also addresses the trust issue, promising: "Amidst the delivery of these game changing AI-driven experiences, Intuit will continue to fiercely protect the privacy of all customers’ data. That commitment has always been at core of our company and will be even more important in the age of AI."
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-intuit-harnessing-power-genai-transfo...

While it's hard not to feel a little deflated that my analysis was eclipsed within a few hours, it looks like Goodarzi is determined to push Intuit back onto the AI's centre stage after the spotlight switched to OpenAI (and Microsoft). Or could something I wrote here have provoked his response?

Thanks (2)
Replying to John Stokdyk:
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By Hugo Fair
07th Jun 2023 17:57

"could something I wrote here have provoked his (Goodarzi 's) response?"
... it's a nice thought, but you (or I) are deluding ourselves if you think we occupy any consideration in his thinking.
I don't think even customers have a place at the table he's addressing ... it's entirely geared at the investor and financial analysts that determine what matters to him - share-price.

After all, you've already quoted him happily stating:
“Don’t call us an accounting platform. We’re not in the accounting business.”!

But you're right to describe the latest outpourings as "breathless" ... trying to take it on board and convert it to anything intelligible is akin to having all the oxygen sucked out of the room.

Thanks (2)
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By jon watkin
08th Jun 2023 14:19

I await with anticipation the chilling prospect of 30 year skilled accounting and tax careers, built on education, training and experience being deleted by automata, because AI is the latest shiny new thing. For sure spreadsheets and accounting software has removed the drudgery of calculations, recording and data modelling but not so much the insight required to make sense of the output produced. The cloudy head AI meme is quite scary- it looks like an accountant and does a lot of the work of one, but when something is to be challenged, it's just a dark, cloudy, impersonal and unassailable mass. Little Britain got it spot on years ago with the "Computer Says No" meme (qv).

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