Technology & Innovation

Artificial intelligence is here

The term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) conjures up images of sentient robots and malevolent computing systems thanks to countless Hollywood blockbusters. But the truth is that AI already exists and people are using it, often unknowingly.

The big data boom has meant businesses have access to huge datasets about their customers, gathered everywhere from invoices to social media, but all that information has to be analysed and it’s being done by ever smarter algorithms extracting useful information for sales and marketing.

The more data they process, the more intelligent they become.

Through natural language algorithms and machine learning, chatbots can replace call centre employees and take customers through routine enquiries or complaints in a normal, conversational way – with the option to transfer to a human if things get complicated.

Recently, there were a number of stories in the media about DoNotPay, a chatbot lawyer created by a 19-year-old Stanford University student that helps people appeal against parking fines in London and New York.

The free service has successfully contested 160,000 tickets across the two cities in the 21 months since its launch. The chatbot works out if an appeal is possible through a series of simple questions based on its knowledge of the law, such as whether parking signs were clearly visible.

If it finds a basis for appeal, it guides the user through the process. The ability to access and analyse a wide amount of data readily is what makes DoNotPay behave like an expert parking lawyer and it’s this ability that is also making AI an integral part of accounting and tax software.

Traditionally, businesses had to go back over months and months of paper accounts to fill in the HMRC tax form or dump all that paper on an accountant to do the same thing. Then spreadsheets came along and soon after, accounting software that allows firms to keep their accounts as they go, with 24/7 access to a snapshot of how their business is doing.

The tax system has lagged behind, which is why former Chancellor George Osborne announced a £1.3bn investment into HMRC to ‘Make Tax Digital’.

Many businesses have said they want more certainty over their tax bill, and don’t want to wait until the end of the year, often longer, to find out how much they have to pay.

Businesses have also said they want tax to be more integrated into the way they run their business, rather than something done separately, and many months later, says newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke said in a speech earlier this year. “The use of digital tools – accounting software or smartphone apps – will, for the first time, create this desired integration,” he added.

With artificial intelligence driven software, businesses will be able to avoid the cost and complexity of full accounting services whilst still ensuring compliance with tax laws that frequently change. Richard Seabrook, Europe MD at intelligent software firm Neota Logic clearly approves of these developments from his recent blog post and believes that such integration between accounting systems and HMRC will allow systems to do all collection, analysis and reporting in real time and without human intervention.

Critically also, these AI technologies will include many of the tax judgments that historically have required an expert’s ability to interpret the rules. Businesses will benefit as it becomes significantly cheaper to provide real-time, accurate filings and in the process reduce the risk of non-compliance.”

Built on Facebook and Messenger, Sage’s chatbot Pegg is designed to help small business owners and freelancers manage their tax and finances, including invoices and expenses. Users simply need to speak into their smartphones and document expenses and the bot will respond accordingly and log all relevant information. Impressively, the bot will also analyse a business’s data and provide KPIs and reminders.

The capability of accounting and tax software will only grow, to the point where the role of the accountant completely changes. In the future 90 per cent of what we do will be forward looking.

That means projections, planning, helping clients with strategy, assisting in succession, growth and retention of family wealth,” says Kathleen Parker, managing partner at Wellers Accountants Artificial intelligence is already here and it’s bringing a host of benefits to businesses.

As well as advances in business software, firms can have access to real-time accounting and tax data at a fraction of the cost and be freed from the yearly headache of filing their returns.

Intelligent machines look set to march on, learning as they go.