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AI and the case for the human touch

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Heather Smith and Sam Green took to The Great Debate stage at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping to discuss whether artificial intelligence or the human touch is the way forward.

13th Mar 2024
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With artificial intelligence (AI) continuing to be at the forefront of many a conversation – and often touted as the answer to problem after problem – Heather Smith, accountant and storyteller at ANISE Consulting, and Sam Green, partnership account executive at Employment Hero, went head to head on the subject to debate whether technology or the human touch is the way forward. 

The Hollywood comparison

In the Battle Panel “AI vs The Human Touch”, Smith dubbed herself the Sarah Connor of the argument, pitting Green firmly in the corner of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, noting that while she wanted AI to be embraced, she also wanted it to be ‘checked before it goes out the door’.

“I want you to leverage it as much as possible and I want you to supervise it,” she encouraged the audience.

“Us, as accountants and bookkeepers, have access to data sets about our clients, about their small businesses, about tax, about other types of government legislation, and using AI, we can run it over those different data sets and service different information that we can take advantage of – leverage, amplify, use,” said Smith, recognising the benefits of the technology.

There are simplistic ways it can be used, she added, such as instant chatbot responses and enhancing communications.

Killing the experience

However, she warned that overusing technology “kills the experience for us” after telling a story of being unable to extend her stay at a hotel recently through the receptionist.

“The robots were in control. We had to stand there on the phone, tapping our card in. It took us 20 minutes to add the extra day while [the receptionist] was sitting there completely unempowered. She was embarrassed and she was frustrated.

“Customer service is too important for a robot to do it.”

Rapidly changing landscape

Green noted that AI is a “rapidly changing landscape within the accounting space”.

“I think the integration of AI is a force – what it can offer is unparalleled efficiency, accuracy and on top of that, a kind of scalability in terms of what you can offer in your day-to-day practices.

“As businesses navigate complex financial arrangements and what’s in place, AI power tools are going to be these indispensable allies, from my perspective.

“I think they’re going to streamline those repetitive tasks that you don’t want to be every day anymore. I think they’re going to be able to analyse vast data sets and also give you these valuable insights that you can get with unprecedented speed and precision if it’s implemented in the right way and in the right form.”

He added that having worked with accountants, he’s been told that “if we can automate this process, it’s going to give us more time to spend on the human touch”.

“I think AI is going to drive the human touch rather than the human touch driving AI.”

Human involvement

Smith reiterated her point about embracing AI, “but with that overseeing of human involvement in it because what you do find is sometimes with these systems, the dream is offered to us, but it’s not yet there.”

She also alluded to the belief that AI won’t replace accountants or bookkeepers; they will instead be replaced by those accountants and bookkeepers who are using and leveraging AI.

Green noted the pair were in agreement on the human touch still being an important part of the day-to-day, adding that it “will continue to be”.

“I think we’re also agreeing that AI absolutely has a place within the accounting sector and generally worldwide, but it’s very much about the control behind it and introducing that gradually into your practice to make sure that it works for you in the right way.

“What I’m hopeful for – and hoping for an agreement for here – is that the AI side is going to be driving your human touch to be more effective.”

While common ground was very much reached, a show of human hands from the audience heavily favoured the human touch over AI.

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