Accountants are not the only professionals whose job parameters will shift drastically with the introduction of artificial intelligence—a University of Oxford study estimates that automation technology may reshape or replace up to 47% of all jobs in the United States—but they are certainly experiencing anxiety. Much of this fear may stem from uncertainty, as it’s difficult to conceptualize exactly what the adoption of AI means for the profession. What can we expect?
AI adoption in the workplace probably won’t involve doing math problems with a sentient humanoid robot. More likely, AI will integrate into tools and processes accountants already use to help them streamline searches and run algorithms more efficiently.
At its core, AI is just code that enables a machine to run basic tasks according to a fixed set of rules. The exponential growth of available data slows down human efficiency, but AI can solve complex math problems, scan vast quantities of information for relevance, and detect errors that humans would likely overlook—all in mere seconds. JP Morgan Chase, for example, uses an AI-based system called COIN to review loan documents and identify mistakes, saving the bank 360,000 labor hours annually. This system employs a branch of AI called Natural Language Processing (NLP), which enhances the computer’s ability to understand human languages and deliver meaningful results.
Machine learning + deep learning
Over time, and with further development, a subset of AI called machine learning will be able to recognize patterns in the data in order to complete a given task faster each time. This constantly-improving efficiency will enable accountants to move beyond analysis to make predictions, identify risks and weaknesses, and optimize a client’s financial health.
Deep learning takes machine learning to the next level by using the patterns in the data to make decisions automatically. Algorithms called artificial neural networks replicate the structure of the human brain, with each layer of “neurons” learning different features of the given information and sharing that knowledge with other layers. Machine learning is like Netflix, offering suggestions based on viewing history, while deep learning is like YouTube, playing related videos automatically.
Machine learning will streamline workflows, enhance organization, and learn how to recognize anomalies and outliers so that accountants and auditors can focus on interpreting patterns and investigating discrepancies instead of spending valuable time balancing accounts and correcting errors manually.
Automation isn’t new to the accounting scene. Integrated payment solutions have existed since the ‘90s, and the technology continues to improve with more seamless integration, mobile app payment options, and increasingly secure online processing.
Tools like EBizCharge simplify the invoicing process by automatically posting payments to invoices, syncing back to accounting or ERP software, and storing client information safely in the cloud. Like AI, automation wasn’t readily accepted initially, but its ability to save time and money and reduce errors silenced the arguments in favor of retaining manual-entry systems.
AI innovations are only accessible to those who have already implemented cloud technology, which means the time to switch to cloud-based accounting software is now.
The cloud stores data off-site, so it’s available at any time, anywhere, on any device. Whereas file cabinets full of sensitive data can be damaged or broken into, the cloud keeps stored information secure with encryption and tokenization capabilities. Cloud technology also facilitates blockchain, which may be “the biggest technological advancement since the internet itself.” Firms like Deloitte believe the trustless distributed ledger system will replace double-entry bookkeeping in the future. This momentous advancement will create a divide between the businesses that embrace cloud technology and those that resist it.
AI is inevitable. The Big Four firms have already adopted it and are spearheading efforts to continue its development. Accountancy as a profession has embraced automation, and cloud technology is catching on. Machine learning will change the landscape of the profession, and its advent will favor those who are willing to learn new skills and evolve into specialized roles.
Utilizing AI for menial accounting tasks will give accountants time to dive deeper into the data, offer clients increasingly valuable insights, and hone their interpersonal communication skills—should they choose to capitalize on the opportunity.
“Firms are primarily using technology to reduce costs and increase productivity, instead of leveraging technology to get better at what clients want most—providing proactive insight, analysis and guidance. Technology can replace people…but [it] cannot replace the judgment and wisdom that clients really want from their accountants,” says CPA Trendlines CEO Rick Telberg.
Algorithms and rule sets can’t replicate human creativity. The introduction of AI into the accounting space is only a threat to those who don’t rise to the challenge of reinvention. For forward-thinking accountants, AI will allow them to expand the scope of the profession into new, exciting territory.