It’s the conversation we need to be having whether we’re ready to or not. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is upon us and brings with it some very exciting opportunities and possibilities for the future, as well as inevitable challenges.
We recently had a chat with Shaun Hughston, the founder of Agility Automation to talk all things AI and automation in the context of Australia and the accounting industry. We touch on job losses, fears, opportunities, graduate roles and transition advice for individuals and business owners.
So, prepare to learn some new things from Shaun that are going to change the game for you in the next 10 years.
What got you into the work you do in automation?
Working in large corporations and in small businesses as a recruiter, I saw so many inefficiencies that I knew could be fixed with automation. I started building some automation within my own company, and even then, for competitors. After that, I knew automation development was for me.
What do you see for automation in Australia over the next 10 years?
I’ve noticed that Australian companies are, on the whole, still quite conservative with their business systems. I think in order to be competitive on a global scale, Australian organisations will need to increase their adoption of cutting-edge automation tech. Certainly, in our larger industries, we’re already seeing huge innovation – self-driving vehicles at mines and drones on farms. However, we’ll need to improve our communications infrastructure greatly (i.e. have better internet) for these innovations to trickle down to small and medium-size businesses.
What are the potential benefits of AI as it grows increasingly sophisticated?
AI can see things that we can’t easily. To take an example in another profession – there are programs that can read an x-ray or MRI as good as or better than a doctor. This presents enormous benefits in rapid diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, in the financial world, AI can process data at the fraction of the time a human can – think fraud detection, market predictions, and even things as simple as identifying the right clients for your practice.
What is the general nature of the concern about AI safety?
Aside from it becoming sentient and producing terminators? I think a lot of the concern comes from the ‘unknown’ – that we can’t see into the machine. Inevitably, people will be worried about the consequences for them in the case that the system processes something incorrectly. In other cases, an error in AI could be devastating when it comes to things like autopilot on a plane, self-drive cars, or medical use cases.
What are the limitations you see within automation?
Everything can be automated in one way or another. The question is – do we want to automate everything? In accounting, what we’re talking about is augmentation by automation. The machines helping humans. Automation doesn’t have to mean a dystopian world of self-controlling weapons or self-aware AI.
Do you have advice for people in facing an automated future as far as skills to develop, transition etc?
My advice is for people to develop both their soft skills (i.e. managing and coaching people) and also, learn about the emerging tech. The more educated you are about automation, the better you can leverage it.
What are your thoughts on the job losses that are being predicted as AI develops?
It’s tough seeing parts of your vocation taken over by machines. There will certainly be jobs that don’t exist anymore. We’re still a long way from whole professions being replaced because we haven’t got to the point where the human element can be taken away. If I need to talk to someone about how to handle the growth of my business, undertake complex financial planning, or better understand new tax laws, there’s a human touch and trust inherent in that, and that will never change.
In terms of the accounting industry specifically, what kind of questions do you think accountants need to be asking?
Accountants ought to be asking themselves – how can I provide more personal service and value to my clients? How can I become more niche? How can I use this automation as a point of difference to my tech-aware clients?
As automation and AI impact the jobs junior accountants previously undertook, how do you see these development processes for entry-level graduates happening?
This problem certainly isn’t unique to accounting, but I think the key is to get new graduates engaged with the technology, as inevitably they will be the ones driving the change. Again, it’s a matter of automation making things easier – it’s not necessarily the case that it’s taking away the tasks inherent to an entry-level position.
Would you agree that the accounting profession needs to be open to more profound change and avoid just defending or incrementally improving the status quo?
Of course! It’s the same in many of the more traditional professions. I think accounting is still light years ahead of the legal profession (sorry, lawyers!), but there’s always a place to be open-minded, experimental and future-oriented.
Shaun Hughston is the founder of Agility Automation and works with business owners who aren’t automating enough.
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