Artificial intelligence and the future of accountancy

We launched our new report on Artificial Intelligence and the future of accountancy last Friday with two events. Both events featured Professor Moshe Vardi, an expert in AI from Rice University, as a guest speaker.

In a lunchtime roundtable discussion, senior figures from business, practice and other professions joined us to debate how AI might affect accountancy. Is it an opportunity to ‘turbo charge’ the profession? Or will it increasingly take over the work done by human accountants? In a wide-ranging discussion, three themes stood out to me as particularly important for the profession.

Timeframe for change: Everyone accepts that change is coming, but when?  There were differing views about the pace of the change and the spread of adoption. For example, we could spend the next 5 – 10 years understanding and applying AI to improve efficiency, with more radical change to follow. Others disagreed and argued for a more aggressive timeframe. There could also be differences across the market. The large firms may invest and adopt quickly, leaving many smaller organisations much further behind. On the other hand, smaller organisations could actually be quick - albeit unconscious - adopters, as AI is just integrated into existing software.

Services and roles: There was a lot of optimism that AI would enable accountants to spend more time on things like strategy and advising. The real value of accountants is interpreting and telling a story around data – what does it all mean for the business strategy? Freeing the profession from tasks like reconciliations to focus on these questions is therefore a positive step. Furthermore, the explosion of data, and the use of AI to gain insight from it, opens up entirely new opportunities for applying accountancy discipline and measurement - from the UN Global Goals to intangible assets on balance sheets.

Skills and the nature of professionals: Skills and training are closely linked to the roles of accountants, and there was general agreement on the need for more technical skills, as well as greater emphasis on softer skills such as communication and leadership. But the discussion also raised the question of what it means to be a ‘professional’. This links to questions of ethics and the continuing need for human involvement in decision-making, as well as the need to build trust in new technologies.

In our second event of the day, a live-stream Q&A, pictured below, Moshe and I discussed some of these questions as well as some of the broader implications for the economy and society.

While we are still in early stages of answering those questions, we both agreed on the importance of debate and shaping the future – while we may not be able to stop the development of technology, we can make clear choices on how we use it.