ICAEW wrestles with artificial intelligence
The ICAEW IT faculty recently published a report exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) will shape the profession’s future. This is what they discovered.
According to technical manager Kirstin Gillon, the IT Faculty’s stance on AI and the future of accountancy is “optimistic, but not complacent”.
AI presents an opportunity to reimagine and radically improve the quality of business and investment decisions, the report notes. But isn’t that what accountants are supposed to do already?
“Certainly in the short to medium term, [AI] is a great opportunity for accountants to develop powerful decision aids and spend more time on analysis, strategy and so on,” Gillon said. “The longer term still represents many opportunities but this may require more radical change in the role, nature of work and skills of accountants, so inevitably carries more risks.”
To explore the pros and cons of AI, the ICAEW enlisted the help of Professor Moshe Vardi, a computer science expert from Rice University in Texas.
“Right now we are in a period of adaptation. Some parts of society haven’t adapted well,” Professor Vardi said in a webinar with the IT Faculty.
“In the longer term the professions are defending themselves. They have created a wave of practices, rules and regulations… That gives stability. It may change radically in the long run, but it’s very hard to change accounting very fast because of the whole set of rules around it.”
The pattern recognition and rule development capabilities of machine learning are so fast and accurate that they can potentially replace and, in some cases, supersede human efforts.
Human judgement is often just a “substitute for lack of data”
In the example cited by Professor Vardi, driving will become increasingly automated – and these kinds of technologies can move very quickly. Closer to home, accounting software providers like Xero are now talking about automating the categorisation and posting of expenses.
Though the ICAEW report sets out to reassure accountants, they start to get nervous when the machines take on the work they are used to doing. But “human judgement” is often just a substitute for lack of data, the study warns.
“Powerful computers with access to new sources of data may well supersede the need for human judgement in the vast majority of cases. Attempts to deny the potential of computers to surpass many human capabilities, and simply to protect current models and ways of doing things, are likely to end in failure.”
However, if accountants take the time to understand the capabilities of AI systems and use them to supplement rather than replace human intelligence, the profession could enhance its underlying purpose to solve problems and support better business decisions.
“We need to recognise the strengths and limits of this different form of intelligence, and build understanding of the best ways for humans and computers to work together,” the study concludes.
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