Businesspeople having meeting in tech start-up office
Artificial Intelligence

CPAs have the skills to work in the AI field, expert says

With their strategic and financial expertise and knowledge of governance and risk management, CPAs are well placed to lead AI projects

Businesspeople having meeting in tech start-up officeWith an AI project, the challenge is not so much to write the correct algorithm, but to determine the answer to a number of questions such as, What are we trying to achieve? (Getty Images/ Compassionate Eye Foundation/Gary Burchell)

When Mila, Quebec’s well-known artificial intelligence institute, was founded in 2018, it was a far cry from what it is today. “Everything had to be built, everything had to done, including opening a bank account and finding a space,” recalls CPA Danielle Langlois, who was hired as CFO right from the institute’s inception. At the time, there were only a few other employees.

Now, in just five years, Mila has become the world’s largest university research centre for deep learning, with more than 150 employees and a community of more than 1,000 professors and students/researchers.

As with Amii in Alberta and Vector in Ontario, one of Mila’s missions is to help organizations build their AI capacity. And having led a number of projects at Mila, Langlois knows exactly what it takes for other CPAs to do the same.

We asked Langlois to share some insights for CPAs who are interested in getting started in the field.

CPA Canada: How is the AI industry faring these days and what opportunities are there?
Danielle Langlois (DL): The field is growing, with variations depending on the province and type of organization. For example, the adoption rate for AI solutions remains fairly low among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), because they often don’t have the means to invest in AI and don’t always have a good sense of what’s at stake.

AI makes it possible to automate or eliminate redundant or repetitive tasks, better manage and interpret data and facilitate audits. Real efficiency gains are possible, on the order of 25 to 45 per cent, enabling companies to remain competitive—and in some cases, even to survive.

Naturally, there is a cost attached to AI implementation, but many government subsidies are available, and organizations such as Mila and many others offer programs to help companies determine what solution is right for them (it may even be possible to use an existing solution) and how to implement it.

CPA Canada: What role can CPAs play in AI projects?
DL: An AI project should be seen as a technology project where the challenge is not to write the algorithm—which can be relatively easy—but to determine the answer to a number of questions such as, What are we trying to achieve? What problem are we trying to solve? How will the solution contribute to our organization’s results? In that sense, a CPA’s strategic vision can be invaluable.

By estimating potential time savings or improvements in efficiency, a CPA can also identify where and how to apply the AI solution, in addition to handling financial planning (costs, subsidies, etc.).

While CPAs at large firms can play this advisory role with their clients, those working in industry can also do so internally. They will need to sit on various committees, as they will need to work closely with many teams to ensure successful implementation. They will also have a role to play in governance, data protection and even ethics, if they see that AI will be used in a dangerous way in the project.

CPA Canada: Are there any other aspects of the job that should be highlighted?
DL: Risk management is part of project management, and it is crucial. But by performing proper risk analysis, with dashboards, you can manage the process so that the project moves forward. You can also anticipate issues that could be harmful to the organization, such as the risk of legal action.

It’s also important to bear in mind that, however skilled they may be, AI experts don’t always understand revenue and expenses, or how to manage a project. They need some guidance. Since CPAs are very strong in these areas, they will always have a prominent seat at the table in discussions with the various stakeholders. And don’t forget that when you implement something new, like AI, you have to constantly revise and adapt your strategic plans.

CPA Canada: What qualities should a CPA have to thrive in this field?
DL: Emotional intelligence is key, because your credibility will depend largely on the quality of the relationships you build.

You also need to be agile and think in terms of “business intelligence.” In other words, you need to be creative and innovative and open to change and new ideas, anticipating the needs of the future, all while staying grounded—through good performance metrics, for example—so as not to lose control.

You also need to have a well-developed analytical side, be a bit of a technophile (comfortable with data management, for example), and enjoy keeping up to date. But here again, personality counts a lot.

CPA Canada: What final advice would you give to CPAs who want to work in the AI field?
DL: A CPA is much more than a number cruncher. From data processing to digital transformation and automation, today’s environment is rapidly evolving, but by placing the finance function at the centre of the organization and deploying a strategic vision for their environment, CPAs have the potential to be leaders in AI.


Check out CPA Canada’s technology resources on how automation and AI could change the CPA’s role. Listen to the Foresight podcast on the role of AI in accounting, and discover the importance of a human-centred and responsible approach to AI. Also, learn about establishing effective IT and data governance.