Many continue to refer to artificial intelligence (AI) as the technology of the future, but it has quickly become the technology of the present – certainly in the working world. As such, the pace of evolving technologies and digitalization of business processes are driving finance and audit teams to quickly and continually adapt.
According to the EY Growth Barometer, 73% of middle-market CEO respondents are already adopting AI, or plan to adopt it in the next two years. This is a big difference from the same survey conducted two years earlier, where 74% said they had no strategic plans involving AI at all.
To better understand the AI road ahead, some complex questions still need to be asked about the risks and capabilities of these revolutionary technologies: Will a computer ever be able to “think” like a human? How do we balance risks and opportunities provided by these disruptive technologies?
And how is work itself redefined if machines can do almost everything?
These are questions that analysts in all industries are asking – they are not just for philosophers, sociologists and economists to answer, but for all of us to resolve.
For a profession such as accounting, capabilities such as AI have exciting potential. The growth of big data generation and storage, together with the capability to process it swiftly and accurately, means that AI is freeing up audit professionals to focus their attention on more value-added tasks. For example:
- Advanced analytics – By using AI-driven advanced analytics tools to analyze larger populations of data in a shorter period of time, auditors can better understand the business, be better equipped to identify risk, ask better questions about the audit findings and, with their attitude of professional skepticism, appropriately challenge the outcome.
- Smart automation – Robotic process automation (RPA) technology operates as a virtual workforce controlled by the business operations teams, and can quickly automate the tasks that are most time-consuming, repetitive, standardized and rule-based. As RPA continues to mature, it leverages AI to allow for the management and completion of more complex tasks, enabling the development of a more cognitive digital workforce.
Imagine a future where information arrives in real-time, with the right tools in place to process and analyze it continuously. It would mean auditors can access the full picture of an organization’s activity, with access to a complete data record and means to unlock even deeper insight.
To further discuss this topic, I was proud to recently join an impressive panel of policymakers, academics and auditors for a conference organized by Ernst & Young et Associés and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). These were not technologists, but rather, professionals who were curious and excited about the future, and asking the key questions that we in the accounting profession must address.
The discussion was less focused on the technologies behind AI, and more on addressing the critical need for trust. Timely, since according to Gartner’s 2018 CIO Agenda Survey, 85% of AI projects through 2020 will deliver erroneous outcomes due to bias in data, algorithms or development teams.
Sustainable and successful AI evolution must be done with the thought that people are a fundamental piece of the equation. Not only because of uniquely human soft skills such as creativity and leadership, but because of the human skepticism and judgement that are necessary to address the new risks that come with the adoption of emerging technologies.
So, as we harness these disruptive technologies, as a profession, we need to do what we do best: keep questioning, analyzing and evaluating data from every perspective. Automation may relieve us of many repetitive tasks, but trust in the digital age is still developed through human decisions, and our responsibility to also continue to ask the basic, fundamental questions is unchanged:
- How do we balance risks and opportunities related to disruptive technologies? Harnessing disruptive technologies brings great opportunity, but how do you also manage the new risk that comes with them?
- What innovation strategy should we adopt and when? How do we harness these technologies in a cost-effective way – especially in an organization with limited capacity to invest? How do you accelerate the change management required?
- How do we adapt our talent model to a new environment? What new skills need to be recruited? How do we train existing and new professionals appropriately?
- How do we manage internal and external stakeholders? How do we harness technology within the borders of existing regulations? How can policies and standards adjust to these new opportunities?
When combining the different forces impacting the audit function, as well as the opportunities offered by disruptive technologies, I imagine a future of audit where quality is enhanced while teams and processes are more efficient, and effective through a broader adoption of AI. And with the auditor’s lens of truth and fairness, answers to both the complex and basic questions will be better addressed to create an enriched client experience.