Will Artificial Intelligence Make Accountants Obsolete?

(Spoiler alert: Your favorite accounting and advisory firm is not about to write a blog post to announce that we’ll be replaced by technology.)

As a baby boomer, my accounting career has coincided with an exponential growth in the application of technology to the work that CPAs do. As a young staff auditor in the early 1980s, I recall lugging around “portable” computers that looked more like sewing machines than today’s ultralight laptops and tablets.Today, the technological revolution continues. Businesses and their advisors are working more closely than ever using cloud-based systems to prepare and share accounting data needed to support informed decision-making. And we hear increasing discussions about applying artificial intelligence, or “AI,” to the accounting function.

From H&R Block advertisements touting the use of IBM’s “Watson” to help clients find deductions, to articles in publications like Forbes and Accounting Today, it’s clear that technology will continue to change the way accountants and clients work together.

What AI Can Do

At this point, AI is all about improving the productivity of the accounting function by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks that businesses and accountants perform. For instance:

  • Cloud-based general ledger systems give real-time access to updated account information from remote locations.
  • Accounting and administrative functions are becoming more automated. For example, AI technology can be programmed to recognize standard forms and to “learn” how to intuit information from non-standard forms.
  • AI systems can process huge amounts of data quickly and efficiently to support decision making for a variety of different scenarios. Depending on the system, it may even be able to search databases of different case studies and business strategies to identify what similarly situated businesses have done previously.

Where AI Still Struggles

While AI has automated some bookkeeping functions and greatly improved the process of preparing and presenting information to decision makers, it’s a challenge to get AI to understand the entire landscape surrounding a decision. The decision to merge with or acquire another business may involve intangibles that even the most talented programmers can’t explain to the system. Succession planning at a closely held business should certainly involve financial analysis, but final decisions are often driven as much or more by the personalities and skills of the people involved.

Aligning the Accounting Function With AI

So with AI’s influence in the business world expanding rapidly, how can you position your business to take full advantage of the new technology? Think in terms of shifting resources from processing documents to reviewing and analyzing results. Challenge your team to do the kind of thinking computers can’t. Focus on developing future-focused skills that add value and make us distinctive. 

Skills that help a business adapt more quickly to AI include:

  • Technology/IT IQ - You need enthusiasm for these advancements throughout the organization, not just in your IT department. Your accounting team needs to be comfortable with change and enjoy the idea of being early adopters.
  • Data management and security - The more accessible your data is from remote locations, the more vulnerable it can be to cyber-attack.
  • Data mining - One downside to AI technology that can access an infinite universe of business information is that it can return an infinite amount of useless information. Your team needs to know how to use the system to get relevant information.

I enjoy the challenge of integrating new technology into our practice here at HORNE. We know that the the pace of change will continue to accelerate and the future will present a host of new opportunities to improve business efficiency and productivity for those who embrace it. But there’s no doubt that the strategic and anticipatory insights that executives count on from their advisors to make informed and agile decisions will continue to be at a premium.  

 

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Topics: Anticipatory, Artificial Intelligence

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