As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. Wait, no, wrong intro. Uh, as far back as I can remember, the Chicken Littles of accounting have been carrying on about the inevitability of robots taking jobs from honest, red-blooded professionals. You know, like they did at automobile assembly lines, supermarket checkout lanes, and women’s nether regions. Why bother paying a bunch of workers when you can invest in a robot to do their job? Robots don’t complain, they don’t call in sick, they don’t care if you work them too hard, and they don’t say “not tonight, dear, I have a headache.” Really, it’s a wonder we haven’t let them take over yet.
In the time people have been worrying their pretty little heads over the robots coming for accounting jobs, AI has definitely gotten smarter. Technology is a wonderful thing — case in point, I haven’t touched a dirty light switch in my apartment for months, not since I procured a pair of sassy Alexas to do it for me — and the possibilities for the profession are certainly nothing to be afraid of. The only ones who really need to worry about automation are clients, that is if we ever get to the point where AI can process mounds of data to the extent that auditors will be able to offer more than just reasonable assurance that the client’s shit is in order.
Although this conversation about muh jobs has been happening for quite some time, most days it feels like the robot revolution we were promised is a long way off. I wouldn’t be so sure of that.
We’ve shared robots scare pieces from just about every accounting and accounting-adjacent publication out there over the years, but now it’s my pleasure to share one from my own back yard. FYI, there’s nothing really new here.
“The accountant of today is going to be different from the accountant of tomorrow — and far, far different from the accountant of yesterday,” says J.K. Aier, an associate professor and area chair of accounting at George Mason University. “Things are changing as we’re trying to understand it. … It’s very difficult to predict what an accountant will be doing 10 years from today.”
What’s scary is not the robots themselves but the fact that the profession is figuring this stuff out on the fly. Far be it from capital markets servants to be ahead of the curve and mold the technology to fit them. Nah, they’ll keep freaking out for a few years, begrudgingly adapt the tech that is forced upon them, and then wait for the next scary thing to hit them in the face like a pie on a weird Mexican game show.
Global accounting firms such as Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG already use machine-learning software to handle some auditing tasks that entry-level employees typically handled, such as reviewing lease contracts.
These firms also are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in proprietary artificial intelligence technologies that will be used in the 2020s, says Gary Thomson, Richmond-based regional managing partner for Dixon Hughes Goodman, the largest accounting firm in the South.
Newsflash: “the 2020s” start eight months from now. This isn’t some distant Black Mirror bullshit, this is here and now and already happening at the Big 4 level, which means it’s only a matter of time before it trickles all the way down, and next thing you know Mort Friedman, CPA is shuttering up his one-man strip mall tax firm because technology can do his clients’ taxes in a tenth of the time for a quarter as much.*
Because of these trends, a national professional association, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), announced in October that it’s developing an AI-based auditing platform, Dynamic Audit Solution (DAS), which will be available to all of its 14,000-plus member firms. Funded with $50 million from AICPA members, the DAS initiative aims to level the playing field so that AI technology won’t be out of reach for small firms.
Y’all know shit is getting serious when the AICPA throws some money at the problem. They believe the technology will give America’s 15,000 audit firms access to tools that will eliminate sampling altogether, meaning no transaction goes untouched.
“You’re going to determine things that you weren’t able to determine in audits that weren’t leveraging these platforms,” he says. “The modern audit is going to allow the auditor to tell the client that they’ve looked at the full data set … [and] found such things as double-billing errors, payments that weren’t being done correctly … and they’ll basically be giving the client much more assurance around the integrity of their data.”
Well shit, no wonder the profession is freaking out about this. You really think audit firms want to be responsible for every single item in a client’s financials? When the next financial crisis hits and banks start failing in, let’s say 2045, will regulatory agencies hold the robots accountable for fucking this up? Alexa can’t even manage my grocery list correctly, how the hell will AI successfully manage mountains of financial data?
So yeah, the robots are still coming, and yeah, it will probably put a few accountants out of a job, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, warm bodies will still be needed to make sure they don’t screw everything up and burn our financial system to ash. It’s basically the same as sex toys; sure a good one is superior to a dude in a lot of ways, but it’s not like women aren’t still dating and getting married and putting up with men despite having superior technology to get the job done right there in their nightstand drawer. So stop freaking out, you dildo.
*I totally pulled those figures out of my ass, I have no idea what robot Mort is gonna look like or be able to do.