How AI will affect accountants' job security

Futurist and author Martin Ford once predicted that robotics will not only replace low-end assembly line workers, but also threaten such jobs as lawyer, doctor, accountant and even news reporter.

Accountants are among the first to bear the brunt of artificial intelligence, big data and other technologies. But surveys indicating how they are affected, and to what extent, are few and far between.

One recent survey, conducted by Shanghai National Accounting Institute, finally shed light on some of the most definitive information technologies that are reshaping the way Chinese accountants view their profession.

The survey looks at 24 technologies nominated by a group of 60 experts, and sees a total of 1,806 accountants and university teachers vote online to select the “10 most important technologies.”

Among the candidates are electronic invoice, mobile payment, digital archive and online auditing. According to Qiu Tie, a SNAI researcher behind the survey, the list of candidates this year — the survey was inaugurated in 2017 — was expanded to comprise more specific sub-categories of over-arching technologies like big data and blockchain.

Qiu and his team collected the results and ranked them in the descending order of the votes they received. At the top is financial cloud service.

More than 90 percent of the respondents voted for financial cloud service, to be followed by digital invoice (81 percent), mobile payment (66 percent) and digital archive (62 percent). The other six listed are online auditing, data mining, digital signature, financial expert system, mobile Internet and identity authentication.

According to Xu Yingpeng, chief accountant at China Commercial Aircraft Engine Co. Ltd, the reason financial cloud service tops the list is straightforward: By enabling accountants to access a database from distant locations, it renders a large number of existing jobs redundant. Xu, one of the 60 experts responsible for the nomination of candidates, said that traditionally financial data was collected and processed locally, but the cloud service helps overcome geographical limitations, enhancing the efficiency of accounting work.

“Companies like Deloitte have started employing financial service robots to carry out basic tasks like manually plucking and adding up numbers from invoices and other financial documents,” said Xu. He believes that with higher levels of IT infrastructure, a company might be compelled to trim its financial service staff, who face the choice between improving their skill set or being down and out.

Zhang Yu, head of the financial team at the Shandong subsidiary of telecoms operator China Unicom, echoed Xu’s viewpoint that an IT revolution is sweeping across the accounting sector.

Bean-counting chores

 The introduction of financial robotics means that more financial staff are freed from the bean-counting chores and instead required to work more intimately with non-financial segments within a company, so as to monitor the money flow on a more proactive basis.

In a phone interview with Shanghai Daily, Zhang said she once quipped to colleagues that in the future she might hire more tech graduates than certified financial and accounting talent.

Mobile Internet also contributes hugely to the efficiency of capital pooling, namely, the process of transferring funds from a subsidiary’s account to the parent company’s. “This is a scourge faced by all carriers,” she added.

While many industry watchers are gloomy about the competitiveness of accounting students in the job market some scholars have sent reassuring messages to worried students and parents.

Yang Yin, an associate professor of accounting teaching at Wuhan Textile University in Hubei Province, also told Shanghai Daily that many of his students are starting to be schooled systematically in the knowledge of big data and financial cloud service, to be better prepared for the coming employment challenge.

Does this mean that these students can only survive the robotic age by endorsing it? Not necessarily, said Yang, who noted that AI is yet to totally supplant human accountants, for various reasons. The most obvious one is that although robots are better at performing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, they lack the flexibility in men, an attribute that is highly valued in accounting.

As a result, it is still up to humans to analyze the correlation between numbers, figure out the pattern behind them, and compile financial reports.

By the same token, it’s well-nigh impossible for robots, with its programmed rigidity, to be trusted at this stage with significant tasks like budget management or tax accounting, which requires strategic vision and artful handling of information, said Yang.

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