The ta­ble of doom

Accounting Today - - Editor’sdesk -

It’s not of­ten that a ta­ble in­duces wide­spread panic, but a few years back “The Economist” man­aged to ter­rify peo­ple in pro­fes­sions around the world, in­clud­ing ac­coun­tants, with a sim­ple list of fig­ures. The ta­ble showed the re­sults of a study that in­di­cated how likely a par­tic­u­lar job or pro­fes­sion was to be au­to­mated; on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 be­ing a cer­tainty of au­to­ma­tion, ac­coun­tants and au­di­tors scored 0.94, giv­ing them the sec­ond-high­est risk of au­to­ma­tion (tele­mar­keters had the high­est, at 0.99). It was widely re­pro­duced, cited, ref­er­enced and oth­er­wise used as a warn­ing — by Ac­count­ing To­day, among many, many oth­ers — that a com­ing wave of tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to elim­i­nate the need for peo­ple to per­form a great many tasks.

While it was handy as a har­bin­ger of doom, the ta­ble wasn’t the only place ac­coun­tants were be­ing warned about a fu­ture where they would be au­to­mated away. Cog­ni­tive com­put­ing, we’re of­ten told, will do away with the need for tax pre­par­ers; ro­botic process au­to­ma­tion will sig­nif­i­cantly cur­tail the need for ac­coun­tants and book­keep­ers; blockchain will elim­i­nate the need for au­dits, and thus the need for au­di­tors. Bet­ter soft­ware is han­dling more of the grunt work that en­try-level staff used to do, al­low­ing firms to hire fewer young ac­coun­tants. All around, tech­nol­ogy is en­croach­ing on jobs that used to re­quire peo­ple, leav­ing many to won­der if there will be far fewer ac­coun­tants in the fu­ture.

It’s cer­tainly true that the fu­ture of the pro­fes­sion will look very dif­fer­ent than its past, and even its present. But the dooms­day sce­nario where ma­chines take over and drive hu­man­ity out of ac­count­ing is highly un­likely, for a num­ber of rea­sons.

To start, while new tech­nolo­gies may elim­i­nate func­tions and tasks, that’s not the same as elim­i­nat­ing jobs. The ATM is a fa­mous ex­am­ple: When it was first in­tro­duced, it was as­sumed that it would lead to banks that were en­tirely de­void of hu­man be­ings, but in fact, decades af­ter their in­tro­duc­tion, there are more peo­ple work­ing in banks than ever — they just don’t spend their time hand­ing out cash or pro­cess­ing rou­tine de­posits. There won’t be less de­mand for liv­ing, breath­ing ac­coun­tants; they’ll just be needed for dif­fer­ent things. One of those jobs will be im­ple­ment­ing, mon­i­tor­ing and man­ag­ing all those au­to­mated sys­tems, and at­test­ing to their re­li­a­bil­ity and proper func­tion­ing. Judg­ment re­mains a uniquely hu­man skill, just as in­tegrity is a uniquely hu­man at­tribute. Ma­chines may never ac­ci­den­tally trans­pose num­bers or take a day off or get tired, but they also have no morals or ethics; they never take stands or tell a client that they’re do­ing the wrong thing.

Fi­nally, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that very lit­tle tech­nol­ogy lives up to its hype. Ma­chine learn­ing, for in­stance, has tremen­dous po­ten­tial — but it’s also se­ri­ously ham­pered by the fact that ma­chines re­quire data to learn, and most of the data cur­rently avail­able is a mess, and will need to be cleaned up. Sim­i­larly, much is made of the fact that blockchain is sup­pos­edly im­per­vi­ous to hack­ers or fraud, but the fact is that the bad guys have hardly got­ten started on it. Give them time and enough ap­pli­ca­tions and they’ll find a way — they al­ways do. And that will call for new ways of fight­ing fraud, and new ways of at­test­ing to in­for­ma­tion, and those will call for new peo­ple to fill those jobs.

In the end, it won’t be peo­ple that are driven out of the pro­fes­sion — it will be te­dious grunt work, and old prac­tices that are no longer rel­e­vant. That ta­ble in “The Economist” isn’t a warn­ing of doom and mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment; it’s a prom­ise of change, and the be­gin­ning of a new chap­ter in the his­tory of ac­count­ing.

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