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Accountants will survive the robo-apocalypse

16th Sep 2015
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In 1965, Intel’s co-founder Gordon E. Moore noticed that his computers’ processing power was doubling consistently, year on year. He predicted this doubling of capacity would continue on an annual basis, giving rise to Moore’s law.

Gordon Moore and his prediction are having a celebrity moment this week with news outlets – most notably the BBC – queueing up to grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) on employment and society.

As part of its Intelligent Machines week, the BBC created a widget where you can calculate your profession’s likelihood of being automated. According to this calculator, chartered accountants run a 95% risk of being subsumed by the machine. Bookkeepers are 97% likely to be replaced; tax experts at 95%. For the 176,000 accountants in the UK at present, it’s not looking good.

The phenomenon of automation isn’t new, despite the sudden uptick in coverage. Robotics and AI have been a trend since at least the 1970s. Until now automation has disproportionately affected repetitive, blue-collar jobs like assembly line factory workers - as any trip to a post-industrial town like Middlesbrough will illustrate.

The seismic shock of automation on industrial processes wasn’t as hard to accept as it made sense. It didn’t challenge the master-slave dynamic of humans and machines, or our existing notions of what machines were capable of. Now, with automation extending to white collar jobs, it ventures into the more philosophically precarious territory of whether robots are able to think or learn.

“Automation has been around for a while, but we’re now moving to, not quite artificial intelligence, but machine learning where we can look at these huge reams of data and infer or understand the insights of a business, industry or group of customers,” explains Gary Turner, Xero UK’s managing director.

In a recent cover story for The Atlantic called ‘A world without work’, Derek Thompson phrased the limitations on the advance of automation beautifully. “Some observers say our humanity is a moat machines can’t cross,” writes Thompson. Chris Hooper, an Australian accountant and self-identified ‘accounting futurist’, is one of those observers.

In an article for Going Concern, Hooper writes about what he playfully terms the “accountapocalypse”. Hooper advised accountants to refocus on the organic, human aspects of the profession. “Sales, leadership and client relationship management cannot be automated or outsourced,” he wrote.

Or as Turner puts it, “The power of being a financially literate professional will never go away.”

Both Hooper and Turner would have accountants grab a digital surfboard and ride the proverbial wave of technological progress.

“Instead of fighting the accountapocalypse, join it,” advises Hooper. “I do think accountants should become proficient in business information systems, or at a minimum, technology literate (the number of partners I see without smartphones is astonishing). Your newfound skills will enable you to implement systems in your company or in your clients’ business.”

We’re now in the era of what Turner terms industry software. Whereas in the past automation transformed productivity or collaboration, it now transforms whole industries. “Whether it’s Netflix or Uber, software is on this relentless journey to change the way we do things,” says Turner.

The good news is the accountant isn’t just a position on the assembly line. The profession does have aspects that are paper driven, repetitive and ideal for automation, but the nuanced facets of the job is the “moat machines can’t cross”.

“It will be much more real-time. Accountants will be able to be useful to their clients in an on-going basis, rather than this periodic paper dump,” says Turner. “It’s not like we won’t need accountants 10 years from now – we will. But we’ll need them for different things.”

Replies (8)

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By mabzden
16th Sep 2015 14:30

Do people want automation?

I saw the online tool where you can see where your job ranks in the great automation firing line. I was surprised that accountancy came so high on the list. It's possible it's another example of people not really understanding what accountants do - if you think accountants are the proverbial bean-counters, then you can conclude a machine can count beans more efficiently than a person.

Leaving aside these misconceptions, another limiting factor for technology is what people want. In the 90s everyone was talking about video phones being the next step forward in communications, but in reality people didn't like the idea of someone seeing their face and preferred the anonymity of voice-only phones. When texts came along - which meant we don't even need to speak - people grabbed that technology with both hands, even though you could argue it was a step backwards.

So, in twenty years time, if you're in hospital do you want an android (say like Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) to trundle up to your bed and ask how you're feeling? Or do you want a human being who is using technology to help diagnose your condition and make themselves more efficient? I definitely would prefer the latter.


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By Francois Badenhorst
16th Sep 2015 15:08

Hi Mabzden

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I agree. The conjectures around the the automation of accountancy suffer from a simplistic understanding of the profession. I do think there's a crisis looming with automation in regards to the service industry -- but I think accountancy as a profession will be fine. Like you say we simply desire the human element far too much to completely rid ourselves of it.

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By waltere
17th Sep 2015 12:56

Time to change career then

Having a few minutes to kill (robots not yet having taken over my job) I thought I'd try to find the most secure profession among those listed in the online tool.  Barristers and judges do OK (320th on the list of 366 jobs) - presumably we'll need them to argue about all those Man v Machine court cases.  Psychologist was the best I could find - 360th least at risk.  Can anyone find a better option?  Some smart-arsed robot is probably going to beat us all to it!

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By waltere
17th Sep 2015 13:51

Scroll down the page!

D'oh!  Answered my own question by scrolling down the page (I'm sure a robot would have got there quicker!). The job least likely to get replaced by a machine is a publican or manager of licensed premises.  Which is great news because it means that when you've been made redundant at least there will be a friendly human being on hand to help you drown your sorrows.

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By 0242736
18th Sep 2015 14:33

But with the rate of pub closures none open to serve you!

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By Caber Feidh
18th Sep 2015 01:47

I want to see an HMRC robot arguing with a robot accountant.

I want to see an HMRC robot arguing with a robot accountant.

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By redboam
18th Sep 2015 07:59

Me or Metal Micky?

There appears to be two kinds of approach to technology on AW these days. Either accountants who are "behind the times" need to instantly "embrace" the cloud or some such device in order to avoid being doomed or alternatively are all going to be made redundant by it. I on the other hand am with FrancoisB on this one. Regardless of the state of technology, clients with plans or problems are always going to want to discuss them one-on-one as and when or before they arise with their accountant. It's simple human nature.

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By brianheg
18th Sep 2015 13:33

Devil in the detail
One of the least replaceable jobs is FD - I guess it depends what the accountant is actually doing.

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