For any graduates seeking to make their way in the world, the interaction between new technology and the world of work will be both a fascinating and sometimes unnerving one.
On the one hand, there is the idea, which dates back to the days of the Luddites, that machines will destroy jobs and render vast swathes of the population unemployed. This has not happened because technology has created new jobs in their stead, but some still believe this will happen eventually, with the likes of Bill Gates saying society will need to tax robots to give everyone an income.
Others have gone further still, suggesting the machines, especially once artificial intelligence (AI) reaches a certain level, will take over everything and even come to see humans as an enemy, an idea made familiar in popular culture by films such as the Terminator movies and which has left some in the AI sector concerned about their influence on public perceptions.
Addressing the questions of AI for accountancy recruitment and retention in an article for Global Banking and Finance principal of Willmott Accounting Brett Wilmot has studied this issue. Will AI, with an apparent capacity to carry out accounting on its own, lead to jobs being ‘terminated’?
The answer, he concludes, is no. Not because someone is about to pull the plug on Skynet, but because there are limitations to the benefits of AI, even if automation can enable it to carry out a book-keeping task far faster than a human.
While Mr Wilmott notes some dire-sounding predictions have come from some quarters, such as the Committee for Economic Development of Australia’s prediction that 40 per cent of the country’s jobs will be lost because of AI as soon as 2025, he concluded an AI system could never carry out the work of accounting alone.
Firstly, he suggested, AI systems, like anything else, are vulnerable to hacking and therefore need human back-up. Secondly, there is the “human touch and customer service that we often need to create an experience for our customers”.
Moreover, even the data itself, far from being there for AI to assess, is itself a product of AI that needs humans to interpret.
Mr Wilmott noted a recent survey by Sage Accounting found 22 per cent of firms said AI improved their business operations and 50 per cent use automated AI solutions in accounting. Another 35 per cent said using AI helped them keep up with customer expectations.
All this may start to sound like what has happened elsewhere in the economy: While technology helps things happen faster, calculates numbers more accurately and runs systems more efficiently, it does so in partnership with people.
Indeed, this may point the way towards what accountancy job candidates really need to focus on. Accountancy Age recently reported that recruitment experts in the sector have highlighted a need for good IT skills. Some have specifically noted how data analytics has become a key skill.
In view of this, the right approach for candidates should be not to fear the future as AI and other tech plays a growing role, but to build the skills to work with it and enjoy the benefits in the workplace of being able to produce a high standard of service and meet growing customer needs.