Is an AI takeover of CPA roles imminent?

Is an AI takeover of CPA roles imminent?

Artificial and machine learning symposium presented by the CPA profession

Is the threat of an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover close-at-hand? Not likely, said industry experts— consider it more of a partnership.

AI and machine learning were the topics of a mini-symposium presented by CPA Alberta, CPA Canada, and CPA Ontario at the recent Canadian Academic Accounting Association’s annual conference in Calgary.

The symposium provided attendees an opportunity to hear and discuss the emerging technologies of AI and machine learning and its impact on accounting education and practice. The panel consisted of:

  • Jonathan Schaeffer, Professor and Dean of Science at the University of Alberta and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence;
  • Partha Mohanram, University of Toronto Professor and CPA Ontario Professor of Financial Accounting at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto;
  • Mike Miller, Partner with Ernst and Young, and the firm’s Western Canadian Lead for Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Analytics; and
  • Sandy Hilton CPA, CA, Vice President, Pre-Certification Education with CPA Canada.

Man and machine partnership

After introductions by symposium moderator Richard Piticco CPA, CA, Vice President, Student Services of CPA Ontario, the session began with Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer touching on some current successes in AI and how the technology can be used to enhance a CPA’s role.

There are some activities that can only or best be completed by humans, explained Schaeffer, and there are activities that can only or best be achieved by machine. It is in the middle ground, activities where human and machine complement each other and create a partnership—what he referred to as augmented intelligence—where the most exciting potential lies. These activities include explaining, sustaining, amplifying, and interacting. “This man and machine partnership is going to free up time to do the things you are good at,” Dr. Schaeffer told the audience.

Schaffer predicted that in the near future the day-to-day tasks of a CPA will have changed significantly, spurred by the acceptance that talking to computers is normal, companies and organizations getting serious about privacy and security, and a more significant role for CPAs in the visualization of data.

Let the data speak

As more companies begin to collect, store, and utilize data, new avenues of accounting research are opened. Professor Partha Mohanram explained to symposium attendees that traditional accounting research relied on a few archival databases, while today’s data research lets you look inside the “black box;” collecting data from different actors such as firms, investors, lenders, regulators and customers to compile a complete picture.

As an example, Mohanram referred to a working paper, Discretionary Disclosure on Twitter, out of the Rotman’s School of Management. The paper states a machine learning approach was used to analyze 12.8 million tweets posted by S&P 1500 firms from 2012 to 2016 in order to discern the firm’s “financial mood”. The machine collected data and identified patterns around the release of financial statements and other company news to determine its performance.

As these tools become more available to CPAs, their will need to be greater acceptance of them in order to realize their full potential, according to Mohanram. He also emphasized the need to ensure the next generation of researchers are trained to use such technology effectively and responsibly.

AI is in the headlines

“AI is not a singular concept,” clarified Mike Miller, Partner with Ernst and Young and Western Canadian Lead for Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Analytics. While AI is what we hear about in the headlines, it’s more of a toolkit that can take on different forms and perform various tasks.

Miller touched on many AI applications that may be of use to CPAs, such as the use of Chat Bots to make audits more efficient or using Microsoft’s HoloLens to show clients a project that may be underground—a frequent challenge in the energy sector.

Technology like bots are helping the firm move employees away from repetitive tasks, Miller explained, not replacing employees but empowering them to work in a new way and focus on more critical tasks.

“AI is changing the nature of work,” said Miller. “No matter what our clients call it—AI, cognitive, RPA, intelligent automation, etc.—the starting point for their automation journey should always be the desired outcome.”

CPAs of the future

Ultimately, the symposium strove to provide some insights into some big questions. While there’s no doubt these new technologies are going to play a role in the future lives of CPAs, how significant will its role be and where do CPAs fit in?

Sandy Hilton, CPA, CA, Vice President, Pre-Certification Education with CPA Canada, believes this is a massive opportunity for CPAs to lead organizations through a time of change.

“Clearly, disruption is coming,” said Hilton. “Somebody has to figure out how to lead hundreds of thousands of business organizations, government enterprises, and small and large not-for-profits through that transition. Who better to lead those businesses than CPAs?”


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