Will accountants be affected by AI in the same way as doctors?

Aug 6, 2019 | Accountants, Business Strategy, Key Business skills, Strategy

Have you ever thought about the similarities between accountants and doctors? And what we can learn from this?

Let’s leave aside the fact that many accountants have historically been described as general practitioners (GPs) – which is a direct take from the medical world.

When we go to the doctor we expect them to fulfil 3 primary roles. We need them to diagnose our problems, to prescribe solutions and to care for us.

There is a direct parallel here with the role of accountants. And given forecast developments in the medical world we can reasonably ask whether such developments are likely to impact the work done by accountants.

The medical world

It has already become much more common for patients to self diagnose their issues before attending the GP’s surgery. Much assistance is available from (Doctor) Google. And, going forwards, Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered ‘robots’ will be available to diagnose our ills. Probably with a higher degree of accuracy than can a human doctor.

Why would robots be able to diagnose with more accuracy than human doctors?  Well, like accountants, the medical profession do not have to secure full marks to secure their qualifications. In the same way therefore we can be sure that doctors, like accountants, don’t know everything. They get some things wrong. IBM’s Doctor Watson is learning fast and is already able to diagnose far more accurately than can human doctors.

If AI robot doctors can diagnose what’s wrong they can also prescribe solutions (be that medication, surgery, rest or something else).

All that will be left for HUMAN doctors to do is something the robots cannot do. To fulfil that 3rd role I referenced earlier. To care for us. To apply their knowledge, skills and experience to help us with our medication, our surgery, our therapy and our recovery.

How does this relate to accountants?

Clients only come to us when they have a problem. When they need our help. Even as things stand we should be better at asking enough questions to help diagnose their real problems and underlying issues before ‘prescribing’ solutions.  There is a huge tendency to assume that all clients just want help fulfilling their regular compliance obligations.

That may well be true for many clients. However, many others also want help, support and advice. And these are the clients we will need to focus on in the future when the compliance world is simpler than it is now. (As you may know I’m not predicting the end of compliance work in the near future).

For the moment, it’s true that few new clients will have self diagnosed, but perhaps some will have looked for help online before approaching you for advice.

Accountants then prescribe solutions and can help clients implement these. Accountants can also offer ongoing advice where this would be helpful.

And, just as GPs refer clients to specialists, so should accountants do the same thing. Indeed to give advice on areas outside of one’s expertise could be a breach of professional ethics (see para 2.11 of PCRT). It could also mean you are uninsured if it transpires your advice was wrong.

Going forwards (within 5-10 years) as with doctors, much of the work historically done by accountants will be automated. Increasingly clients can already self-diagnose and prescribe/choose a bookkeeping package that reduces their need to engage an accountant.  Of course we like to hope that some clients will never be able to do it without our help. I believe this view is often based on assumptions and on limited awareness of how fast AI and machine learning developments are changing things.  It may take 5-10 years but the days of clients needing to pay accountants for much of the compliance work you currently do, are coming to an end.

I understand the temptation to challenge, deny or ignore this view. Until 2017 I would have done the same. Now though I am satisfied that it is only a matter of time. I have seen the technology that already exists; the AI included in QBO and Xero, the way that H&R Block in the US is using IBM’s Watson to advise basic tax return clients (by reference to 77,000 pages of tax codes and 60 million data points of experience) and the speed with which AI is being developed in related fields.

This is not a doom and gloom scenario. You have plenty of time to adapt and to evolve your practice (and your clients). And for many accountants this means focusing more attention on the forward focused business advisory side of things than ever before. Compliance work will continue to become more and more automated.

It’s easy to assume that home based AI (eg: Alexa, Google and Siri) is a as good as it’s going to get. No. This is just the start. These facilities are all in their infancy so they are only learning to get better very slowly at the moment. They will grow up very soon. And office based AI will start to become more common too.  But all of this is still simply step one.

When we reference AI we tend to think only of  Artificial Human Intelligence (AHI). In effect this mimics what we do, and does it faster and more accurately.  But AI has the potential to be much more than this. Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) is what will follow when technology is able to surpass what we could possibly do as humans. Whilst this may be scary, it’s still some years away in the accountancy and related fields,

However advanced the software and AI develops, what it will never be able to do is replace your ability to show you care. To engage with clients and learn about their dreams and plans. And then to offer constructive and relevant advice to assist them in achieving their objectives.

The sooner accountants start focusing on how to grow the advisory side of their practice, the less worried they need be about the rise of AI in the accounting world.  And for those who want to continue focusing on simply dealing with compliance work, you probably still have a few years to adapt. Nothing is changing overnight, but the pace of change has speeded up. You have time to plan and adapt. I think you’ll struggle if you stand still and allow everyone else to zoom past you. And they will.

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