South African accountants allay AI fears

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There are fears that some accounting functions like bookkeeping will soon become obsolete due to AI.
There are fears that some accounting functions like bookkeeping will soon become obsolete due to AI.

South African accounting professionals are closely watching how artificial intelligence (AI) will impact their profession.

This as there are growing fears that some accounting functions such as bookkeeping and reporting will soon become obsolete due to AI.

According to Gartner, AI adoption in organisations has increased nearly threefold since last 2017. A recent report by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) says in the coming decades, intelligent systems will take over more and more decision-making tasks from humans.

"Although AI techniques such as machine learning are not new, and the pace of change is fast, widespread adoption in business and accounting is still in early stages. In order to build a positive vision of the future, we need to develop a deep understanding of how AI can solve accounting and business problems, the practical challenges and the skills accountants need to work alongside intelligent systems," says ICAEW.

The South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) says there has been much talk in the press about the 'robotisation' of accounting and how AI will inevitably make professional accountants obsolete.

"Professional accounting organisations like International Federation of Accountants and SAIPA are closely monitoring the impact of AI-driven systems on the industry," says Faith Ngwenya, technical and standards executive at SAIPA.

"While some bookkeeping and reporting functions may require minimal human intervention in the future, the professional accountant who is willing to expand their horizons will be more in demand than ever."

Gerrit Olivier, CEO of business solutions company About IT, notes bookkeepers, accountants, even CFOs and chartered accountants (CAs) should be more deeply concerned that their roles will change as a result of AI, machine learning, and similarly advanced technologies.

"We are already developing a machine learning-based support solution for the Sage environment. In fact, AI and machine learning have already made such an impact in the world of finance that right here in our country, the South African Association of Chartered Accountants, together with the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors, has initiated a project called CA2025," he says.

The project is investigating the competencies CAs will need in future.

Nonetheless, SAICA points out that to date, there are no commercially available general AI solutions that can learn to do anything a human can.

"Rather, today's AI solutions must be trained to perform an individual task by analysing historical data related to that function," says Ngwenya.

"They also have to be given statistical boundaries so they know whether a given piece of information is relevant to completing the task or not. And they must be configured to recognise when they have reached the desired goal. Once set up, an AI solution continually executes the task by trial and error in a training environment until it achieves an acceptable rate of success. Only then can it be deployed to a live business environment. If the task is unique and limited data is available, system and data preparation could take several months," she notes.

Pieter Bensch, executive vice-president for Africa and Middle East at Sage, comments that technology is redefining the role of accountants, bookkeepers and auditors, and continues to transform the finance function as we know it.

However, he points out this does not mean technology will necessarily replace humans.

"Rather, we envision that financial practices and professionals who do not embrace AI will be left behind by those that do. The benefit of the technology is that it allows each member of the finance team to automate routine and menial tasks so they may focus on exception management, human relationships and adding value.

"We envision a world where higher levels of automation allow the accountant to focus on serving as a strategic advisor to the business, valued not for the work he or she does by the hour, but for their ability to help the business perform to its full potential."

Bensch believes that rather than focusing on the numbers, it's about focusing on relationships and understanding the client's business.

"It's about repackaging accounting services as a business solution and using the latest technology to drive efficiency. For accountants and bookkeepers, it may involve learning new skills, such as sales, marketing and consulting."

According to Bensch, adoption of AI in general is in its early phases in SA, but "we are starting to see some adoption of machine learning and AI for crunching big data sets among larger organisations.

"AI, machine learning and robotic process automation will have a powerful impact on the accounting profession as lower-level services and tasks continue to be automated and delegated to technology," he concludes.

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