6 May 2016

The impact of new technology on the profession

“In a technology-based internet society, we predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions.” So say father and son Richard and Daniel Susskind, authors of The Future of the Professions. And that includes us

As a profession we have been aware for some time that new technology will transform the profession. We already use software to take on the humdrum business of number-crunching; we can also see how the use of big data analytics is changing audit, so that instead of a sampling basis, we can capture all transactions and then just review those that do not conform to the norm. Similarly, in the tax world, the automation of tax returns is progressing apace: in the UK they are set to disappear by 2020 while countries such as Sweden and Mexico are well ahead of the game in planning how to replace their tax systems.

The Susskinds’ view of the impact on accountancy, however, goes much further. They challenge the old assumption that we chartered accountants will always have a role to play. Take the exercise of judgement – one of the defining characteristics of our profession. We currently use our judgement to choose the best from a range of outcomes. But if we are able to apply big data analytics to consider, say, half a million or a million previous examples that allow us to narrow that range, then the importance of exercising judgement diminishes substantially.

We’ve always drawn comfort from the view that clients like to talk to people. Yet there is evidence that suggests some people prefer to confide in machines, especially when there are sensitive issues involved. The Susskinds point to the example of Joseph Weizenbaum who, while a professor of artificial intelligence at MIT, wrote a programme that simulated an interaction with a human psychotherapist. He invited his secretary to try it out and was apparently “horrified” when she asked him to leave the room so that she could talk to the machine in private.

I do take issue with some aspects of the Susskinds’ arguments; for example, they paint a rosy future, where there is harmony in the world, all these computer systems interact and everything is done for the public good. But what about cyber threats? We may build these fantastic systems yet someone can still steal 11.5 million documents.

I think we should be worried but not to the extent that we behave like rabbits in the headlights. Our profession does have a future but it will be up to us to make it and shape it. Let me know what you think (comments to chief.executive@icaew.com).

Michael Izza is ICAEW chief executive

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