Monday, May 16, 2016

CATS2016: Exponential Tech & the CPA

Today, I presented at the Canadian Accounting Technology Show and discussed how exponential technologies and their potential impact on the profession.

During the presentation, I promised a blogpost for the attendees who wanted to dig deeper in the presentation. So here it is!

IBM Watson's Victory over Ken Jennings
During the talk I refer to Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter's defeat at the hands of IBM's Watson. (See Engadet's video for more on this "exponential event".)
This post gives some background on the new "space race" between the tech-giants for the killer AI app and also gives a link to Ken's talk.

For additional information on Watson and the medical profession check out this video.

Exponential versus Linear Technological Change
Kodak - who invented the digital camera in 1975 - was ultimately disrupted by that very same technology. In fact, one of their employees applied Moore's Law to pixel's per dollar in digital cameras.

Why?

The problem illustrate that Kodak (as well as Polaroid) had linear thinking and didn't realize how quick digital technology would become the norm and preferred way of consuming photography. In this post, Peter Diamandis talks about how 30 exponential steps contrasts to 30 exponential steps (and talks more broadly about linear vs exponential thinking) and Ray Kurzweil talks about the infamous story of how the inventor of chess requested an exponential amount of rice (and is rumoured to have lost his head).

Predictions on the Automation of White Collar Work:
These stats are what actually prompted me to propose to CPA Canada that we should have a talk that would discuss this phenomenon. The variety of sources that have chimed in on the topic - combined with the understanding of exponential change - highlights the importance of looking deeper into the trend instead of dismissing it as just fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). This of course is not just limited to the accounting profession, but impacts all white collar worker (check out IBM's Watson latest application to automate aspects of the legal profession
  • "Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market's ability to create valuable new ones.” (Gartner)
  • “…knowledge work automaton tools and systems could take on tasks that would be equal to the output of 110 million to 140 million full-time equivalents (FTEs).”’ (McKinsey)
  • ‘94% probability accounting/auditing will be automated’ (Oxford Study)
  • Finance Department has seen a decrease from an average of 119 people (2004) to 71 people (2014); a reduction by 40% (Hackett Group; as taken from this WSJ article "The New Bookkeeper Is a Robot")
Exponential Technologies
As noted during the presentation, the key exponential technologies that are likely to enable the automation.

Artificial Intelligence: "Science of making computers do things that require intelligence when done by humans." During the presentation, I mention this pharmacist robot being able to dramatically reduce medications errors, which according to the FDA is responsible for 1.3 million injuries.

For other information check out this Deloitte publication on AI and Cognitive.

Internet of Things: "Billions of interconnected sensors and devices will soon exchange data; effectively the physical flow of goods, people, and things will now leave a “digital trail”." RFID inventory does provide some insights in how this digital exhaust left by physical goods can improve inventory management and responsiveness to customers (see this RFID Journal article for more details).

For more on IoT, check out the Deloitte TMT Prediction regarding the technology.

Blockchain: "The blockchain dis-intermediates the need for a centralized trusted authority to administer an exchange of value between parties." As I note in the presentation, I feel the blockchain needs a lot of nuance when discussing how the technology has the potential to disrupt the profession. The technology (as implemented in the exchange of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin) itself won't replace the audit because its controls are designed for the purposes of giving comfort to a retailer, such as Overstock.com, that the buyer has not spent the currency somewhere else. However, if a retailer was then to tell an auditor that they sold goods to these public addresses, the auditor would need to verify that the retailer was not selling the goods to itself (i.e. they would need to verify that the addresses that the retailer sold to are not controlled by the retailer). In other words a sale for the purposes of Bitcoin is not a sale for accounting purposes.

That being said, auditors can’t ignore blockchain as it is the first decentralized approach to exchange value that eliminates the need for a trusted intermediary.

To understand the blockchain better, check out the following videos:
  • Blockchain technology will drastically change our lives: This video gives a good overview of the implications of bitcoin and illustrates the role of the network in maintaining the ledger.
  • How Bitcoin works under the hood: There is a 5 minute non-tech video, 5 minute tech video and a 22 minute video, which all do a good job of using animation to explain how bitcoin is tamper-proof.
  • Khan Academy: The videos are about 90 minutes in total, but it is comprehensive. 

Crowdsourcing: "Process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers."

For more on crowdsourcing, I wrote a post on the potential impact on crowdsourcing. The post gives a good background exploring the use-cases brought up by Jeff Howe (who coined the term crowdsourcing).

Near the end of the post, I noted that:

"Can accountants/auditors be crowdsourced like the way professional photographers were? It seems were crowdsourcing works best is an arena where you find hobbyists who do such things out of passion instead of obligation."

Since writing that post I found Gigwalk which illustrates how non-expert tasks within accounting or auditing can be done by the crowd (see this post near the bottom). Also, during the CATS conference it was noted that 50% of practitioners will be retiring over the next 5 to 10 years. Such retirees could form a huge pool of people who want to work casually in their retirement thereby enabling the audit to be crowdsourced.

Concluding thoughts
To meet the challenge of the exponential change, I feel that we need to do the following:

  • Hands-on Approach to Technology: University courses on programming, data analytics and data sciences should become a standard part of the accounting student's education. Although tools change over time, I think accounting students who have an open-source statistical package like R would have more options in terms of employment. With respect to data science, (audit) sampling belongs to an era of small data. Consequently, for auditing theory to be keeping pace with the way big data is transforming the way organizations are dealing with their data auditors need to be able traverse data science and auditing theory. 
  • Bring in the "hackers": An extension of the above recommendation, is to get the people who think outside the box and disrupt the way we do things.
  • Greater focus on cyber security: According to Alec Ross, cyber security is currently a 400 billion dollar problem and is expected to be a $175 billion industry by 2020. Security is a natural extension for CPAs who already need to understand internal controls, governance and concepts of risk (impact, likelihood, threats, etc.). With IoT, the security risks can only be expected to grow exponentially as now even the IoT-enabled fridge can be hacked (and the FTC thinks so as well).
  • Smart Contracts+AutoRepos of Smart Cars = Flash Crash10: As I have written previously about AlgoTrust (second post and first post), I noted that this was another area that CPAs can focus on - auditing algorithms. Just imagine how, these algorithms can feed into blockchain enabled smart contracts that could trigger a massive repossession of smart cars - leaving a city in chaos as people try to figure out how to get home. In other words, CPAs can act as independent monitors of algorithms to ensure such risks are safeguarded against. 
  • CPAs-as-a-Crowd: CPAs should leverage the combined power of social and cognitive to get smarter by sharing knowledge and using "smart rooms" that use machine learning and other AI technologies. 
To brings such change the profession, will not the work of one entity alone. Firms, educators, professional bodies and companies need to work together to ensure that the CPA profession will thrive in the world of exponential change that is just around the corner.