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AI in accounting: moving beyond compliance

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in accounting will rapidly move from a tool for compliance and towards the delivery of advice, but will never replace a human accountant, the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) heard.

Carole Barnay, head of AI research & development programs at Xero, told the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) that AI was “on the path of moving the administration task” and rapid developments would be made in 2019.

“AI will provide suggestions to accountants instead of driving compliance,” Barnay told a panel discussion on “AI for finance. Faster data, insight and agility.”

AI would progress beyond “showing you anomalies” and develop new abilities to focus on accounting and business issues “which could be more problematic.”

Will AI replace accountants?

Accountants, however, should not worry they are being replaced.

“AI is being created to augment the human who is still at the centre,” Barnay said.

Xero regularly held workshop sessions with young accountants in New Zealand to “debunk” AI myths and understand the needs of the profession.

“Overwhelmingly, they want AI to help make their connections with clients better,” she said.

Another panellist, Natalie Nguyen, CEO and founder of AI start up Hyper Anna, agreed that machines were not replacing accountants, and named two areas that would remain exclusively human.

The first was “high-value tasks” around budgeting and governance, strategic directions and policy.

“The second is change management in organisations and this is a huge area where we need to find a formula, and in some ways machines can work with humans,” she said.

Hyper Anna has created a corporate equivalent of personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa, which can respond to questions and emails on organisational data.

Task loss not job loss

The third panellist, Sage VP of AI and ethics, Kriti Sharma, said accountants should look at the rise of AI not in terms of potential job loss, but “task loss”.

There were many repetitive tasks that AI could perform, and which accountants would not regret losing because it would make their jobs more creative and interesting.

Asked about her goal for AI, Sharma said it was to integrate it seamlessly within people’s everyday lives so people “don’t even realise it.”

As Sage’s Vice President of AI and Ethics, however, Sharma is highly aware of the governance and ethical side of AI, which she said was a critical part of building trust. 

“Technology can give you answers but there is also a lack of trust and understanding of what is going on under the hood,” she said.


Integrating AI

While wanting to integrate seamlessly, she was opposed to using the “Turing Test” for AI, which strives to make AI indistinguishable from a human, as a criterion for success. 

“If you don’t know you are talking to a machine or a human you are in danger of exposing information to a system which may not be able to handle it properly,” she said.

“Ethical software and technology are going to become like organic coffee but not for only for hipsters – it will become the norm.”  

Natalie Nguyen from Hyper Anna said one of her key visions for AI was “hyperpersonalisation.”

AI could be a major tool to remember the details and preferences of colleagues and friends, and personal AI assistants could be trained to replicate personal vocabularies and favorite sayings.

“People can tweak Anna to their own way of saying things, to their way of referring to an area of the business, for example,” said Nguyen.

“This creates a different way of seeing the world of data and makes it fun when you feel you are training up AI intelligence and making it personal.”


This article was originally published in IN THE BLACK| Publication date 8 November 2018