Why machines and artificial intelligence will not replace accountants

Businesses should see technologies as the greatest enablers of change, not disrupters, and machines and artificial intelligence (AI) augment rather than replace the work of accountants, Partner Tay Woon Teck said at the recent Professional Accountants in Business (PAIB) Conference.

He noted that as long as business exists, shareholders, creditors and stakeholders have to rely on accountants as stewards to provide factual and objective financial information, help in the development of new financial reporting standards and uphold public trust in financial statements. Whenever there is a financial crisis, regulators and stakeholders turn to accountants for answers as they are still the ultimate decision makers for the preparation, consolidation and interpretation of financial statements.

The Lehman Brothers crisis prompted accountants to issue Financial Reporting Standard 113 (Fair Value Measurement) to provide users of financial statements with sufficient, relevant information on financial statement components that have been measured at fair value. As new business models are created, stakeholders rely on accountants to clarify the principles for recognising revenue and provide a more robust framework for addressing revenue recognition issues, Woon Teck said.

He acknowledged that rule-based activities, evidence collection and compliance-related activities can now be done by machines and AI, but disagreed with the notion that this will lead to the demise of the accountancy profession. This is because accountants exercise professional judgement and professional scepticism, which machines and AI cannot.

However, accountants should use technologies, such as data analytics and valuation and risk management tools, to provide independent, objective and unbiased financial statements, which will enhance public confidence and trust, Woon Teck said.

Financial technology has led to greater collaboration and interdependency between industries and professions that do not traditionally work together, such as accounting firms collaborating with regulators and technology companies to harness blockchain technology. It is therefore essential for accountants to master such technologies that enable change, develop a positive mindset and embrace lifelong learning, he added.    

The session ended with a lively panel discussion on new growth areas in accountancy led by Woon Teck. Organised by Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, the PAIB Conference was held on 28 September 2018 with the theme, “Championing Growth in the Transformation Wave”.