The Robo-Accountant will eat your lunch

By Francois Badenhorst

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In 1965, Intel’s co-founder Gordon E. Moore noticed that his computers’ processing power was doubling consistently, year on year. He predicted this doubling of capacity would continue on an annual basis, giving rise to Moore’s law.

Gordon Moore and his prediction are having a celebrity moment this week with news outlets – most notably the BBC – queueing up to grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) on employment and society.

As part of its Intelligent Machines week, the BBC created a widget where you can calculate your profession’s likelihood of being automated. According to this calculator, chartered accountants run a 95% risk of being subsumed by the machine. Bookkeepers are 97% likely to be replaced; tax experts at 95%. For the 176,000 accountants in the UK at present, it’s not looking good.

The phenomenon of automation isn’t new, despite the sudden uptick in coverage. Robotics and AI have been a trend since at least the 1970s. Until now automation has disproportionately affected repetitive, blue-collar jobs like assembly line factory workers – as any trip to a post-industrial town like Middlesbrough will illustrate.

The seismic shock of automation on industrial processes wasn’t as hard to accept as it made sense. It didn’t challenge the master-slave dynamic of humans and machines, or our existing notions of what machines were capable of. Now, with automation extending to white collar jobs, it ventures into the more philosophically precarious territory of whether robots are able to think or learn.

“Automation has been around for a while, but we’re now moving to, not quite artificial intelligence, but machine learning where we can look at these huge reams of data and infer or understand the insights of a business, industry or group of customers,” explains Gary Turner, Xero UK’s managing director.

In a recent cover story for The Atlantic called ‘A world without work’, Derek Thompson phrased the limitations on the advance of automation beautifully. “Some observers say our humanity is a moat machines can’t cross,” writes Thompson. Chris Hooper, an Australian accountant and self-identified ‘accounting futurist’, is one of those observers.

In an article for Going Concern, Hooper writes about what he playfully terms the “accountapocalypse”. Hooper advised accountants to refocus on the organic, human aspects of the profession. “Sales, leadership and client relationship management cannot be automated or outsourced,” he wrote.

Or as Turner puts it, “The power of being a financially literate professional will never go away.”

Both Hooper and Turner would have accountants grab a digital surfboard and ride the proverbial wave of technological progress.

“Instead of fighting the accountapocalypse, join it,” advises Hooper. “I do think accountants should become proficient in business information systems, or at a minimum, technology literate (the number of partners I see without smartphones is astonishing). Your newfound skills will enable you to implement systems in your company or in your clients’ business.”

We’re now in the era of what Turner terms industry software. Whereas in the past automation transformed productivity or collaboration, it now transforms whole industries. “Whether it’s Netflix or Uber, software is on this relentless journey to change the way we do things,” says Turner.

The good news is the accountant isn’t just a position on the assembly line. The profession does have aspects that are paper driven, repetitive and ideal for automation, but the nuanced facets of the job is the “moat machines can’t cross”.

“It will be much more real-time. Accountants will be able to be useful to their clients in an on-going basis, rather than this periodic paper dump,” says Turner. “It’s not like we won’t need accountants 10 years from now – we will. But we’ll need them for different things.”