I believe artificial intelligence (AI) is about to transform the accounting industry. Automation, machine learning and big data are already impacting how accountants serve clients. Until recently, accounting technology existed to make certain tasks easier, but did not challenge accountants to re-think business practices.
The Tipping Point
The writing has been on the wall for years. I’ve been working on my own automation platform for businesses, and keeping tabs on other emerging technologies in the industry. From what I’ve seen, new technologies will create the need for accountants to adapt both their processes and skill sets. A recent Forbes article identified accounting as one of 10 professional disciplines threatened by technology capable of learning. As automation tools become increasingly able to perform transactional and record keeping tasks, accountants will need to future-proof their positions in the industry.
The long-term impact of AI on employment is now understandably under heavy scrutiny. The Economist recently examined the history of automation anxiety, citing multiple studies that did not bode well for the future of humans performing routine cognitive tasks.
What does this mean for accountants, and how can the industry prepare?
How Accountants Can Prepare
Although robo-accountants seem farfetched at the moment, they won’t be for long. Accounts will have to adapt to automation — focusing on more complex skills and creating value with human interaction. In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Deloitte Analytics laid out how knowledge professionals can prepare for automation.
In the article, accountants were advised to educate themselves about what’s ahead for technology and specialize quickly, because entry level jobs will become vulnerable sooner than higher-level roles. Taking this one step further, industry professionals could also embrace AI technology in an effort to provide more value to clients.
Better technology will create more opportunity, similar to the rise in demand for compliance and auditing professionals that was created by healthcare reform and financial industry reform. Emerging disciplines such as forensic accounting and mergers and acquisitions accounting may also appear.
Artificially Intelligent Accounting Is Born
Predictable, mundane tasks are the ones most threatened by these breakthroughs. To this point, information-oriented tasks like bookkeeping have been protected from technology by the existence of unstructured data. However, optical character recognition (OCR) and NoSQL database technologies are starting to offer the ability to ingest and process imagery, sounds, and text from almost any source. It’s easy to imagine tomorrow’s AI platforms doing that which human accountants are currently most famous for — your taxes.
How To Future-Proof Your Career
Many of these same experts point to the human experience as a key differentiator for accountants. Many people and businesses have unique needs that first or second generation AI will be unable to understand. For example, explaining complicated tax forms is better done by a human than AI right now.
Accountants today have the power to define the future of the profession. The industry must develop the ability to adapt and evolve, as well as become proactive about the needs of tomorrow’s clients. Accounting as a profession needs to change, providing consultation and guidance to help clients prepare for and meet the future.
I think offering clients insight and expertise is a better bet than offering a simple service that can be replicated by machines.
Don’t Become A Casualty Of Modernity
Automation and AI will continue to assume more responsibility for routine cognitive tasks, but these technologies cannot yet replace human interaction or interpret intangibles not represented in empirical data. Accountants should evolve to become business advisers and strategists who help drive long-term business strategy — making sense of complex financial infrastructure and interpreting increasingly fluid tax law.
The time to prepare is now. More robust automation tools and first generation AI are visible on the horizon. Accountants should be ready to seize new opportunities presented by these technologies as they become available. That means finding a niche and really honing those interpersonal skills.
Accounting is among the most complex and challenging professional disciplines, and accountants are talented individuals who can adapt to a changing industry landscape. They have great value in the changing business world, and by focusing on their insight and expertise and finding customers in need of those offerings, an accountant can assure their future and define the future of their profession.