The Rise of Artificial Intelligence in Accounting Practice

Posted 17th Apr 2018

Google estimate human-level AI will be reached by 2029, with 16% of employment positions in the US estimated to be lost to AI networks over the coming years. Gartner, the research company, have calculated that 33% of all occupations could be undertaken by robots by 2025, predominantly in logistics, finance, customer service, health care, and manufacturing.

With such large numbers of jobs at stake, it’s hard to ignore how the rise in AI will affect the accounting world and, specifically, accounting practices. Applications can handle data, produce reports and generate statements quicker and with more precision than a human, but does this indicate the end of the accounting profession?

Many fear job losses, but to give a little context, many of the current in-demand-jobs (posts that technological and societal shifts brought rise to) had not been created ten years ago and the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children currently in primary school will hold positions that are yet to be imagined. The same fears of job losses were discussed in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the first industrial revolution - those fears quickly subsided - as we sit on the advent of the fourth industrial revolution similar fears are coming to the fore again.

Deloitte have lead the way in this field and have already started to implement AI systems to analyse contracts. Programmes with natural language processing capacities are put to use analysing contracts and deeds, freeing-up thousands of man hours and saving huge amounts of financial expenditure.

Smacc, a German software company, have been developing an artificial intelligence programme to assist freelancers and small businesses with automating accounting systems and financial reporting. Receipts are scanned, probed and assigned to the correct account. The application learns the more data is fed into it, allowing it to increase its invoice management abilities, expense handling and liquidity profiles. By utilising 60 data points, the programme learns to identify suppliers, allowing it to become fully autonomous - resulting in no more manual data input and the opportunity to scrutinise a company’s finances at any point in time, rather than having to wait until month end.

Arria, a UK-based software company, have been developing a natural language application that makes the processing of data-heavy reports simple and not reliant on humans and the errors that can occur from repetitive work. Robert Dales, the chief technology officer, stated:

“By emulating human behaviour in software, you get technology that can carry out tasks that are more than just straightforward number crunching, with the machine exhibiting real intelligence. But you get all the benefits of this being done by software: it’s incredibly fast, it’s incredibly consistent, and it doesn’t need to sleep or take vacations, so it’s available 24/7”

Cloud-based accounting software providers (Intuit, Sage, and Xero) are already providing similar autonomous systems, freeing up time for their customers to focus on more important operational matters. Rather than taking jobs from the accounting industry, companies like Xero are allowing accountants to become more valuable to their clients by adding value to the more complex services they provide.

Does all this automation and innovation herald the end of the accountant? Not even a little bit. Robots have already taken the more menial functions away from accounting practice, but the impenetrable tasks that require skilled, trained, professional accountants very much remain in the realms of humans. Consulting and planning clients’ needs (essential to the functioning of the accounting industry) would be impossible to do without the specialist knowledge of an accountant. AI in accounting should be embraced and has already been seen to be opening new opportunities.

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