Accountants’ role in managing AI disruption

By Ken Tysiac
October 22, 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) could have wide-ranging effects on the accounting profession.

Tax return preparation duties and audit procedures that are performed now by accountants may be increasingly handled by machines in the near future. Robo-advisers have established a foothold in personal financial planning, and management accountants have incredible opportunities to use data analytics to help their organizations make strategic decisions.

Accountants who want to continue to succeed in business need to think about ways they can deploy this technology, said Calum Chace, an AI expert who spoke Sunday at AICPA fall Council in San Antonio. Their competitors already are finding ways to use AI.

“Collecting, organizing, and analyzing the data that you have access to is the first step,” Chace said during a pre-Council telephone interview.

Chace, whose books on AI include Surviving AI and The Economic Singularity, said accountants—and everyone, really—also should consider the long-range effects of AI. He predicts that within 20 to 30 years, AI will be developed to the point that many people no longer will have jobs because machines will be able to do the work better than humans.

Chace calls that point in time the “economic singularity.”

“That sounds scary, but actually it could lead to a really, really good world,” he said. “It could lead to a world in which machines do all the jobs, machines do all the drudgery. And humans get on with the important business of living, which is learning, exploring, playing, and having fun.”

He predicts that truck drivers will be the “canary in the coal mine” for the economic singularity as self-driving vehicles take over the roads. The American Trucking Associations estimates that there are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States in a job that provides a middle-class living without demanding advanced education.

Having them lose their jobs all at once could have devastating effects. Chace said it would be the beginning of a very big change in the economy.

“We have to be ready with a plan before that happens,” Chace said.

To prepare for possible massive job losses to AI throughout the economy, Chace said, research institutes throughout the world need to thoroughly study the effects AI could have on the job market and society. He said researchers need to come up with a consensus over the next 10 years for the best solution for humankind as jobs disappear. The public and private sectors need to support such efforts, he said, with the input of communities across the globe.

Chace expects that a second, more existential challenge for humans will come in about 50 to 70 years, when he predicts that humans will create an artificial general intelligence. This would mean the creation of machines that possess all the cognitive abilities of a superintelligent adult human rather than just having superior knowledge of one thing, such as driving a car.

Chace calls this the “technological singularity.” When that occurs, humans would be the second-most intelligent beings on the planet.

“That will be a slightly uncomfortable position for us unless we’ve succeeded at what I think is the most important challenge for humans this century, and quite possibly the most important challenge for humans ever,” Chace said. “That is to make sure that the very first superintelligence we create really likes humans and also understands us a lot better than we understand ourselves.”

Fortunately, he said, research institutes are already dedicated to tackling this challenge. He said that research on the technological singularity is more advanced than research on the economic singularity. Because it is the more imminent of the singularities he forecasts, Chace is more concerned about the economic singularity.

On a more immediate level, Chace addressed what accountants need to know now to handle the disruption that AI is bringing to their profession in the short term. His presentation at Council was followed by breakout sessions on how the accounting profession can best leverage and support AI. His suggestions for this include:

Start slowly, if necessary. “It’s really kind of baby steps for most companies,” Chace said.
Make use of your data. He said organizations have lots of data that need to be gathered, audited, and scrubbed. Properly compiled, data can then be used in AI applications.
Find the necessary skills. “If you don’t have the skills in-house—and a lot of people don’t—you can hire them through consultancies or recruit people who understand data science,” Chace said. “And when you get pretty sophisticated, you can then start to use the machine-learning tools.”
Regarding the more distant economic and technological singularities that Chace forecasts, he said accountants can play a leading role in the dialogue about the future. He said accountants are trusted for their intelligence, level-headedness, and analytical abilities, and he expects that as AI’s impact on the world emerges, accountants will continue to use their skills to serve the public interest.

“I think accountants’ main role in the context of AI is in their capacity as humans rather than in their capacity as accountants,” he said. “… They are very well-respected, and many of them can play a leadership role in their communities.”

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