Artificial intelligence in accountancy - a threat or an opportunity?

Director Chris Langrick talks about the benefits of automating basic process through AI, but says clients will still need strategic advice from accountants.

AI systems can be very powerful and are improving quickly. So says a recent report from accountancy trade body the ICAEW who included as part of its fact find on the impact of intelligent systems, the creation of its own AI Assistant. This automated bot was programmed to respond to questions about the organisation, AI and itself, helping the ICAEW to best test attitudes to interaction with a machine from the accountancy profession. It is a glimpse of a new world order we need to be ready for.

Accountancy Age tells us that by 2020 accounting tasks will be fully automated but that the finance profession in general is in denial. According to another survey only 4% of 600 finance professionals have implemented AI systems in their workplaces and that’s in spite of 47% feeling enthusiastic about it. Of course the major concerns are around threat to jobs  - will machines replace accountants – and the simple answer to that is no – but we should ignore fast-moving AI capability at our peril as those who don’t engage will be left behind.

There is certainly a shift towards providing real-time information and accounting software is being developed to deliver this. We are seeing automated feeds from bank accounts into software, with automated reconciliation against sales and purchase invoices.  Whilst this requires an element of review time, the processing time is significantly reduced.

We are also seeing signs of a world where invoice processing will be a thing of the past. We can already scan batches of purchase invoices that, through machine recognition, are automatically processed into the accounting system (with an element of review time).

It will not be long before annual accounts production, suitable for filing at Companies House, is largely automated using bookkeeping software and then it will only be a matter of time before the corporation tax return can be automatically calculated.

From the examples above, it is fair to say that a large part of the accounts production process can and will most likely become automated through AI, especially around simple business models. This is good news for most firms because with efficiencies like this accountants could be in a position to offer fee reductions.  But I believe that all clients will still want piece of mind that everything has been completed and filed correctly.

I think the real opportunity with AI though is the chance it gives accountants to properly explore the role as a strategic business advisor. This is a trend we are seeing and actively pursuing ourselves which marries the best of both worlds. Using intelligent advances in technology alongside professional talent to help grow businesses, protect jobs and build strong economies.

To read the ICAEW’s report in full click here.

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