In its report, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Accountancy, it says the fact that intelligent systems will increasingly take over decision-making tasks from humans will create opportunities for the profession, including the chance to reimagine and radically improve the quality of business and investment decisions. But the profession does need to adapt quickly.
As Kirstin Gillon, ICAEW’s IT technical manager and author of the report, points out, what the profession is about to experience in the not too distant future is a “paradigm shift”.
“Machines can already take over a lot of process and compliance work, for example, and they will start to offer insights, analysis and new services like fraud detection,” she says.
“This is good news for finance professionals, who will be able to focus on more valuable tasks like decision-making, problem solving, strategy development, and leadership.
“But it will require new roles and skills, and there will be institutional adjustments necessarily from regulators and standards setters.”
Although AI systems are capable of extremely accurate outputs, they do not replicate human intelligence, she adds, and the profession needs to recognise the strengths and limits of this form of intelligence.
“Humans make decisions in two main ways – using intuition and reason – and both are important. Historically, AI development focused on trying to replicate reason, but machine-learning based on rules, however sophisticated, will ultimately be defeated by the greater complexity of the real world.
“Recently developers have focused on pattern-recognition instead, which allows greater flexibility. But it depends on data inputs, so it will always be limited by the data available.”
Gillon stresses that at the end of the day the decisions made by AI systems are actually just mathematical projections and so will not be able to provide answers to everything, for example, where ethics are involved.
Nevertheless, the profession must understand the practical challenges of using AI to solve accountancy and business problems and work out what skills the accountant of the future will need to work with intelligent systems.
The report calls for a multidisciplinary approach to supporting thinking about the short and long-term impacts of AI. It wants accountants to join up with computer scientists, machine learning experts, software providers and other experts and professions, and get involved in a wider debate about the long-term opportunities and challenges for the profession.
But it also wants to explore the possibility of collaborating with other bodies to encourage innovation and share data on building better business models.