Technology & Innovation

Will robots take over accountancy?

Reform, an independent think tank focusing on UK public sector reform, released a report claiming that almost 250,000 administrative public sector jobs could be replaced by technology over the next 15 years. The fear of robots replacing human beings in the workforce isn’t a new one.

Many companies, particularly large businesses, are already using robots to perform repetitive tasks, such as collecting groceries in warehouses or on assembly lines building equipment and other machines, while industries such as marketing have seen automation revolutionise the status quo.

But as more and more industries look over their shoulder to find robots and automation looming, should traditional sectors, such as finance and accounting – ones that have the pillars of our economy for centuries – be worried about severe job losses?

Job losses or job creation?

Carl Reader, director of d&t Chartered Accountants and author of The Startup Coach, believes that private sector workers, including accountants, have only ‘scratched the surface’ of what they can achieve using technology, and predicts that more jobs will be disrupted by AI in the near-future.

“It staggers me that the report only believes it’s 250,000 public sector jobs – I believe it will be so much more. Many jobs that accountants will be doing in the next 20 years or so won’t have even been invented yet.

“If you look at accountancy 20 years ago, the vast amount of work involved paper records. With automated bank feeds and many processes going online, that’s pretty much become a thing of the past,” continued Reader, who went on to say that severe job losses will be countered by job creation for accountants, most likely in advisory and consultative services.

Paul Donno, managing director of 1 Accounts Online, agrees with Reader’s analysis of the industry and is already aware of the difference technology has made to accountancy.

“If you look at where our profession is now, it’s miles away from where it was two or three years ago. I think that the bookkeeping industry has already been hit very hard by things like the automation of account transactions – so already technology is making a big impact,” explained Donno.

Despite robots and computers already disrupting some accounting professionals, Donno believes they will have a positive effect on the industry in the long-term.

“We’ve trained to be advisors and our real work is helping a business grow. I’ve certainly seen first-hand that automation is already allowing us to spend more time with clients.”

The time for robots has arrived

One person who knows more than most about the impact automation is having on the professional world is Kriti Sharma, VP of Bots and AI at Sage.

Sharma has dedicated her working life to innovating in the AI sector and has recently created Pegg, an accounting chatbot that businesses can use to manage their money more efficiently. Sharma believes that the time for robots to make a real impact on the professional world is now.

“For sure with bots, robots and AI – the time for them has arrived, it is no longer just a hype cycle that we’ve been discussing for years,” Sharma explained.

“AI is nothing new, the technology has been around for decades, but now what’s changing is the consumer adoption in our daily lives – we’re not apprehensive about having our days scheduled by something which isn’t human, we’re not scared of having robots complete tasks for our business, such as managing expenses.”

Sharma also believes that the fear around robots taking jobs will not be a permanent one, arguing that the history books show we’ve already had to deal with similar types of adversity.

“This fear is nothing different to when personal computers first came about and we were worried about losing our jobs to them – there was a lot of scaremongering at the time about that happening. But what happened was that it made our lives easier – we can’t imagine our lives now without personal computing, so this fear is always the case when new technology appears.

“With every new wave of technology disruption, comes new opportunities. There will be a re-jig, we will have to upskill ourselves to live, and work with AI. Who knows, maybe the next hire I make may not be an actual person.”

Why accountants should upskill

Sharma’s notion of professionals upskilling is one that’s already being discussed in the public sector.

In January 2016 during her time as home secretary, Theresa May discussed plans to allow people with specific skills, such as accountancy and IT, to assist police with tackling cyber and financial crime, a move which Reader has praised.

“I think that the repurposing will happen. If you look at other professions, such as marketing, journalism etc., they’ve had to redefine how they work because of technology, so this was always going to eventually affect the accountancy profession, it’s a fact of life.

“Online security is already so important and moving forward, we have to make sure our data is locked in and secure, so accountants and finance professionals could play a big role in that.”

It’s widely accepted that robots and AI are already disrupting the way we work. The question now is how long will it take before it redefines how accountants go about their daily business.