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Big Data, AI And The Uncertain Future For Accountants

Via Forbes : Not that long ago, accountants were often – and in a slightly derogatory way – referred to as “paper pushers” because of the vast quantities of paper records and receipts they dealt with.

But these days, everything is going digital. In fact, a child born today might never need to handle paper money in her life (save, perhaps, the bit of money left by the tooth fairy…). More and more, it’s not just the money that’s gone digital, but everything that goes along with it as well: receipts, record-keeping, audits, taxes, etc.

In fact, accountants have been instrumental in helping design the very software that could signal their demise.

Over the years, accounting software has become easier and easier to use. At first, it was little more than a digital spreadsheet for recording transactions, with a few extra features and reporting functions thrown in. Today, accounting software can automatically import transactions, keep track of digital receipts, automating payroll and keeping track of taxes.

User-friendly and low cost accounting software based in the cloud has exploded in the past few years, including not just industry leader QuickBooks online, but also FreshBooks, Xero, Mint and Wave, for example, all providing easy-to-use, low-cost accounting software to individuals and small businesses. And the startups are offering more and more robust features to users as well.

Automation is usually the turning point for when computers can begin to take over tasks that were once the sole purview of humans. Accounting software that connects to the web can now easily automate the tedious and time-consuming task of entering transactions by downloading the digital information and records from various financial institutions. Only cash and check transactions need to be entered by hand, and with the increasing digitization of financial transactions, soon everything will be recorded.

But that sort of automation is really old news. The newer trends and breakthroughs in the field involve much more complex automation for tasks like:

Audits — in which computers excel at executing structured processes and rigorous checking
Regulatory compliance — as regulations get more complex, computers can assist in ensuring transactions comply and facilitate necessary reporting
Receipt reconciliation — programs that turn receipts into machine-readable data can then reconcile them with transaction data eliminating the need to ever “balance the checkbook”
Risk management — computers are already getting to be very good at fraud detection and prediction that human operators can miss
Trend analysis — as with most fields, many high paid accountants and financial advisors make predictions, and with the right data, computers can do so just as well if not better

Of course, the first fear is that these new technologies will erase jobs, but some advocates say it will be a job creator. The reasoning is that least in the short term is is unlikely that companies and individuals will trust a computer to perform these complex — and vitally important — tasks entirely on their own. Human oversight and direction will be wanted and needed for some time to come.

However, in the medium-term future I see increasing automation where most of the accounting process will be fully automated and where machine learning algorithms will prepare company accounts (maybe with a number of options humans simply pick from) and then submit the accounts and tax returns autonomously. At the same time audits will be performed by artificial intelligence tools and accounts or tax returns automatically checked and verified by the tax authorities’ machine learning systems.

For accountants today, the key will be to focus on the areas of the job that are more difficult to automate such as the business advisory function, rather than simply number crunching. At the same time, it is vital that every accountant embraces the new realities and learns how to work alongside software tools and intelligent algorithms. By working out how to work with, rather than compete against automation, accountants will most likely find a secure career path for the future.

Bernard Marr is a best-selling author & keynote speaker. His new book: ‘Big Data in Practice: How 45 Successful Companies Used Big Data Analytics to Deliver Extraordinary Results’

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