AI in practice: ‘It’s already here’

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is moving so quickly that before you know it, it's turning up everywhere, reports John Stokdyk.

Technology has accelerated to the point where when you first encounter a new concept, it has probably passed you by and become part of the furniture. For proof, just take a look at how AI has already infiltrated accountancy. During 2016, AccountingWEB members devoted considerable attention to AI and how it was likely to shape the future of the profession. But software developers and many accountants did more than just debate the issue. They started experiments to make the future happen.

“AI is already here – there are firms doing it, and not just the Big Four,” said Gordon Roxon, sales director for MindBridge, a supplier of automated audit and fraud detection tools to accountancy firms.

Roxon was attending this week’s Alternative AI for the Professions conference in London, where MindBridge clients from Kingston Smith and Kreston Reeves rubbed shoulders with representatives from KPMG, EY, Grant Thornton and numerous law firms and consultancies.

The impact of AI on the professions and jobs was a constant talking point, but the real benefit of the event was to see how many different ways AI was being applied – from extracting data from legal contracts for due diligence assignments to fraud detection, audit and basic customer service.

Technology accelerator

Wired magazine editor Gregg Williams proclaimed AI as the “new cloud”, but with so much of it about and spreading so quickly, it is worth keeping in mind his prediction that it will become an accelerator of other technologies.

Currently there are two main strands of AI: first, the classic data analysis scenario where automated pattern-checking and machine learning algorithms identify anomalies and underlying trends within large data sets. And where better to apply such technology than in automating the audit?

But that’s quite a limited view. According to KPMG audit partner Nick Frost, when undertaking an audit for a listed consumer goods supplier, he wants a more holistic view and won’t just stop at just analysing the financials. The contemporary auditor will explore other risk factors to obtain a holistic view of the organisation’s health: unstructured third party data from social media, sentiment analysis, public domain datasets and comparative analysis.

Conversational agents

The other end of the AI spectrum revolves around robots and agents designed to interact with humans and respond to their questions and instructions. In terms of data processing and logic, understanding and interpreting human communication is as big a challenge as automating analytics.

No major accounting software house can show its face in public without making a pronouncement or demonstrating its software agent, as we have seen during the past year from UNIT4, Sage, Xero and QuickBooks.

Automation is also becoming commoditised in a process that Wired’sGreg Williams termed, “AI as a service”. Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook are building these capabilities into their platforms and making them available to developers of all sizes.

Microsoft’s Raymond Hounon explained how the two branches of AI might start to converge in a typical accounting and finance setting, when using Microsoft’s Power BI analysis tools. While reviewing accounting data, an analytic bot might flag up unseen patterns, or prompt the user to refine their analysis through a series of context-sensitive questions.

Machine learning on the audit front line

Back on accounting’s front line, Kingston Smith partner Becky Shields said that clients are already asking audit firms about their use of technology during the tender process. The Big Four are spending billions on developing proprietary tools, so unless firms like Kingston Smith embrace similar capabilities with commercialised AI products such as MindBridge, audit will become two tier again, with the Big Four holding sway at the top end, she warned. “If we don’t have these solutions, we’re in danger of losing work,” she said.

Getting to grips with AI is hard work – as well as researching the market, Kingston Smith had to work extensively with MindBridge to train its software.

Getting data into a state in which machines can start applying their learning is a major hurdle for AI, but the structured nature of financial system data makes life easier for accountants than lawyers. At Kingston Smith, the MindBridge program can import a full transactional log from accounting ledger systems such as QuickBooks Online, Sage Intacct and NetSuite and will then carry out an analysis according to the auditor’s preferred risk controls – including time of journal posts, high values, sequence gaps, last three digit analysis and so on.

Answering a query about the impact of AI on jobs, Shileds put forward a view that many at the AI conference shared. While the machines will be able to eat up rote-like low value work, they will still need to be guided by their human masters. “The knowledge jobs will go, but the wisdom jobs will remain,” she said.

About John Stokdyk

John Stokdyk is the global editor of AccountingWEB UK and AccountingWEB.com.

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29th Nov 2017 17:28

AI has been around for longer than you may think.

I recently took over three clients from a long established and well known accountant and it soon became clear that his intelligence was indeed artificial.

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30th Nov 2017 11:47

John are you being paid for spouting this rubbish? Come on you're much better than this.

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30th Nov 2017 13:10

I recently employed an out of work Dalek to do accounts prep. Danny was usually affable but he/she (never found out) could not stand incomplete records.
I was working away and heard the metallic exterminate1! exterminate! I ran downstairs to find a client called Jack reduced to ashes on the carpet. Danny wh y did you do this to Jack he serviced my car and was a nice chap. Danny barked '' his records were incomplete, missing bank statements no VAT invoice for trolley jack....'' stop I cried that is no reason to exterminate him, or was it. I could get Geoff to service my car and he uses Receipt Bank and Xero, Danny would really like him.
Yes AI /Robots it can work!

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to Silver Birch Accts
30th Nov 2017 13:42

This made me laugh and brought back memories. One of my first jobs was to book in clients records and it was always a couple of days after they brought them in. Yes I used to huff and puff when stuff was missing. One day I was a bit loud and the managing clerk just looked at me and pointed to the telling bone.

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By mabzden
to johnjenkins
30th Nov 2017 15:04

I'm not going to take advice on emerging technology from someone who uses the term "managing clerk".

But your story has reminded me to record "Howards End" on Sunday. Thanks for the nudge. ;-)

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to mabzden
01st Dec 2017 09:25

One of my clients used to live in Rook's Nest.

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