Accountants can play a valuable role to ensure broad public trust in technologies like artificial intelligence. At the same time, accountants also need to upskill to stave off the threat of automation replacing the process-driven parts of their jobs.
Those were some of the talking points from a panel debate in Dubai on the 17th of June 2019, attended by the CEOs of the member institutes from Chartered Accountants Worldwide, along with invited guests of senior business and finance professionals. Moderated by Dubai-based business journalist and presenter Richard Dean, the theme of the discussion was ‘The Future of Trust: new technology meets old-fashioned values’.
The hour-long discussion tackled themes like the impact of artificial intelligence (A.I.) on the accountancy profession, and whether it’s possible to trust a ‘black box’ system whose reasoning may be hidden from view.
Furthering trust in technology could be a job for accountants, suggested Michael Izza, Chairman of Chartered Accountants Worldwide and CEO of ICAEW. “A.I. only works if you’ve got data, and lots of it,” he said. Some of the world’s largest technology companies are gathering data at an unprecedented scale, and the lack of trust is prompting authorities like the European Union to put checks on some of that power.
He then commented that this issue was highly relevant to the accountancy profession and to chartered accountants in future. “Somebody has to opine on whether or not the data is accurate; whether or not the data is complete, whether or not the data on which the world is building so many of its engines can be relied upon. And I think one of the roles of chartered accountants in the future is as the guardians of data,” said Mr Izza. The United Nations has previously called for the accountancy profession to perform this kind of assurance role, he added.
David Haveron, an expert in A.I. with PwC’s emerging technology practice in Dubai, gave a brief demo of the concepts and ideas behind A.I. There are many good reasons for a business to adopt the technology, such as staying competitive in a market, innovating with new products, or driving internal efficiencies in a company. He presented an example of an A.I. tool or neural network that has been trained to understand certain patterns that can help firms to decide whether a new client is a high or low risk.
Mr Haveron said the innovation that’s going to happen in the next few years “will be profound, and nothing like we’ve witnessed before”. He added that there is “an immense opportunity” at a global and at a regional level, to start understanding how A.I. is going to be used in businesses to help us make better decisions. “Algorithms are becoming increasingly prominent in everyday life, whether you’re looking at insurance industries or audit and accounting, leveraging A.I. will be on everyone’s agenda in the next couple of years.”
The key to “bridging the gap of trust”, as he put it, is for developers to ensure transparency by making A.I. systems better at explaining their reasoning using natural language. “A lot of development is being made in this space to make us trust A.I. a little bit more,” he said. Technologies like blockchain and new collaboration models have the potential to redistribute power that resides with governments and large corporations today. “This is going to be a really interesting story to watch… You’ve got to be an optimist and hope that these technologies will be taken back by the people and leveraged to solve some of our most important problems.”
SAICA Chief Executive Freeman Nomvalo brought an African perspective to the discussion, noting that technology’s threat to jobs has particular repercussions in poorer parts of the world. “The challenge is that it displaces employment, and for a growing economy that has faced poverty over the years, that becomes an important issue for policymakers to respond to,” he said. “Society has got to embrace technology because it will help us advance, but these issues begin to raise questions: should we trust this technology when it comes to take our jobs?
Bryan Stirewalt, CEO of the Dubai Financial Services Authority, noted that technological innovation is a necessary component of financial services. It has enabled auditors to sign off accounts faster than ever and allows for earlier warnings about risk. It has also created disruption in the market, which should force professions to start thinking about the effect it could have on their roles.
In a nod to the arrival of technologies like robotic process automation into finance functions, he joked: “We’re fighting to keep the four letters ‘robo’ out of our job title.” On a serious note, he said he expects a human element of accountancy and audit work will remain, but it will need to change. “If your job can be reduced to a process map, you probably won’t have a job. So the end of the process map is where the future of industry lies, and that’s where people need to be trained and skilled… You can’t think of today’s job and what technology does to that; you must think of tomorrow’s job and where technology meets that,” he said.
Sabbir Ahmed, Member Council at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Bangladesh, said human decision making and relationships remain important for business, even as tools like A.I. augment their ability to gain insights.
“Machines cannot drive change – they will give you the prediction but it’s the human being that will drive the change,” he said. “One area where A.I. needs to match with is EI: emotional intelligence. Human beings cannot be replaced by machines. That human element and human empathy is core to trust,” he said.
It is also important for accountants to question assumptions that technology may be based on, Mr Ahmed added. “We trust a black box to the extent that we can understand how that black box has calculated something. One element in our core DNA as an auditor is professional scepticism, [so] are we doing enough to challenge the model that A.I. has provided?”
Closing the discussion, Michael Izza said that the accountancy profession has a lot to think about. “There is no doubt that technology will have a significant impact on process-orientated, or compliance-orientated roles, where technology will be able to do it better, more accurately and more quickly. At the same time it offers huge opportunities for the profession to move up the value chain, and to play a role as data guardians in a world where we are drowning in data and starving in insight.”