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The Profession

Enterprise tech expert Duncan Stewart talks about the future of the accounting profession

As a keynote speaker at The ONE national conference this year, CPA Canada asked Stewart about what he foresees changing for accountants

A growing reliance on technology and the increasing prevalence of AI and evolving job automation has some professions wondering what it means for their future. We chatted with Duncan Stewart, director of Technology Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Research for Deloitte Canada, and a globally recognized expert in enterprise technology, to better understand what this changing landscape means for CPAs.

p>Duncan StewartDuncan Stewart, director of Technology Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Research for Deloitte Canada, says artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will affect the way CPAs perform their work. (Photo courtesy of Deloitte)

New technologies and AI are changing the traditional functions of many businesses, accountancy included. How do you see this affecting the role of the future accountant?
DS: It isn’t just changing the profession itself, it’s changing the profession as we practise it in all industries. Ten or 15 years ago, when we talked about technology, there was the technology industry itself. Now in every single industry it’s not merely using technology just a little, it’s using technology as a competitive differentiator. The reason one bank beats another bank isn’t that they have better interest rates, it’s usually because of their mobile app, or something like that. It isn’t just that technology is everywhere—it’s critical and that has implications.

What are those implications for accountants specifically?
DS: There are a few things. There’s the hardware, the devices we may use to do our job; there’s the software, the tools we use to do our jobs; and the networks that we use to do our job. There’s actually not a lot of huge changes on the network level. But 23 per cent of Canadians get their at-home data from cellular.

The device landscape we’re using today changed a lot during 2007–2017, but it kind of stopped changing. There’s a few things we can do on smartphones, but there’s a lot we can do as CPAs that we’re doing on laptops and that’s not going away. Most times we will be using a proper-sized screen and keyboard because it’s the right device for the task that we do.

So 10 years from now, do you know what CPAs are going to be doing most of their work on? It’s going to be mainly computers with a little bit of smartphone.

What new trends do you predict for the business world?
DS: The single biggest trend for CPAs is AI and machine learning. Deloitte’s prediction is that enterprise use of machine learning will double in 2018, and double again by 2020.

At this point, machine learning is a tool used to feed things into our processes around accounting and auditing and measuring and tax and all that stuff, which is good news. Over the next two years we will see a lot of tremendous progress made in artificial technologies like voice recognition, speech synthesis, etc., so our firms will be in a position where we will have fewer human operators and instead some of our calls will be taken by robots.

There will be tools that will allow us to do our jobs faster. You might be using machine learning as part of an audit to do more comprehensive and fulsome audits.

Does this stuff actually replace the CPA? Almost everyone agrees the answer is no. The higher value stuff that we do, automation will augment what we do, but it does not automate it. We are enhanced, not replaced.

There’s also blockchain. It’s probably going to be a lot like machine learning. It allows us to do what we already do, on the tools we already use, but allows us to do it faster, cheaper and more efficiently.

How do these changing roles relate to other industries and the business world in general? Are you seeing similar trends across different industries?
DS: Professional services in general appears to be one of the examples where the belief is that AI and machine learning is more likely to disrupt lower level jobs within our industry and even more powerfully affect jobs outside of our industry. It appears that professional services are more likely to view AI as a tool that helps us do more faster, rather than as something that takes a significant percentage of our jobs. So how does it actually change the profession? Probably not much.

I am predicting by and large that although there will be a lot of changes that seem to be going on, at that fundamental reality, our jobs a decade from now will look a lot like our jobs do today.

What can The ONE attendees look forward to hearing you speak on in your upcoming keynote address on October 2 in Halifax?
DS: I am going to mention machine learning. The second thing I’m going to be talking about is quantum computing—what it is, how big is it, what does it change. I’m going to be offering a high-level and fun explanation on quantum computing, so you can go home and impress everyone!


Join fellow CPAs in Halifax this year (October 1 and 2, 2018) to gain more insight with future-focused sessions and thought-provoking keynote speakers, including Duncan Stewart. Also, stay ahead of the game with our professional development resources.