Features | From Pivot Magazine

Your next business adviser could be a robot

Computers are making more and more decisions, but people will always want someone they can look in the eye

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IBM’s AI platform Project Debater; the machine-learning robot Sophia; a deepfake videoL to R: IBM’s AI platform Project Debater; the machine-learning robot Sophia; a deepfake video (Photographs by Getty)

There are two adages that seem contradictory, yet manage to be simultaneously true: Change is the only constant.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Both of these are highly relevant for CPAs in today’s world. Let’s start with the first. As the digital revolution amps up uncertainty, CPA Canada’s Foresight project has been exploring the ways the future might unfold. Will society become more fragmented, with self-interest being the priority, or more cohesive, with a collective focus on social capital and the pursuit of a common purpose? Will communities resist transformative change and turn inward to protect against danger, or embrace innovation and attempt to harness its vast power?

Society’s reactions are unpredictable, and many of the technological tools that will be available in the next couple of decades are unimaginable today. We’re already seeing a mind-boggling array of advancements. The ability of artificial intelligence to make medical diagnoses on par with or better than practitioners in areas such as skin cancer is inspiring. Similarly, IBM’s AI platform Project Debater recently showcased its ability to effectively debate a human opponent by framing rational arguments in support of a position, while also understanding and rebutting counter-arguments. This sort of progress highlights the opportunities for technology to enrich human decision-making.

“Um…” Some AI gadgets interject imperfections into their speech to seem more human

But we’re also seeing threats form. The emergence of “deepfakes”—synthesized videos showing people saying things they never said—warns us that seeing is no longer believing. Even more disastrous is the potential for the militarization of autonomous AI systems. The new frontier will be a magnet for power and corruption, and society will undoubtedly face great challenges in this regard.

Where will CPAs fit in? Will our role as trusted adviser remain intact? There are many facets to trust. We trust those we believe to be knowledgeable, and trust is reinforced through positive interaction. Emerging technologies are being built with these factors in mind. Computers are vastly better at data analysis and are now learning to interpret nuanced human language. Systems are designed to be not only technically impressive, but to present as human, to take on gender and to simulate emotion (like Sophia, a machine-learning robot who was given Saudi citizenship and spoke on the importance of family). AI agents even replicate our imperfections to be more realistic (Google Assistant interjects “um”s and “uh-huh”s into its speech). Given these features, it’s not far-fetched that these AI systems will be trusted to suggest the most favourable tax plan or business strategy in the future.

Which leads into the second adage—the more things change, the more they stay the same. CPAs will still be called upon to ensure information is reliable and relevant, and to guide decision-making with the best interests of the client, employer and, ultimately, the public in mind. 

Even if our clients and employers recognize—and they may not always—that there are humans behind the computer, setting the parameters and the base criteria from which systems evolve, these still need verification, interpretation and controls in order to establish accountability. With respect to machine learning, there are significant concerns around bias being built into algorithms that self-perpetuate inequities—for example, in hiring decisions and loan approvals. As machines become more relied upon to help make complex predictions that drive business strategies, most people will likely still want the reassurance that comes from being able to look a professional in the eye, trust in our integrity and know that we’re accountable for our services.

It’s not far-fetched that AI systems will one day be trusted to suggest tax plans or business strategies

Moreover, once a computer has begun learning for itself and revising its own algorithms, we have a black-box situation where we don’t know what’s going on inside. Only humans can be held accountable for that; regulators and the broader public will only have faith in a system if they know that—at a minimum—a trusted professional understands what goes on inside the box and is duty-bound to be open about it. To quote Mr. Weasley of Harry Potter fame: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

CPA Canada’s ongoing work seeks to harness the profession’s core strengths, including objectivity, integrity, accountability and transparency, to ensure our strong value proposition in the future. Conversations continue regarding how to help CPAs hone the technical and enabling competencies necessary to thrive. We need to embrace innovation, break down silos and build multifaceted teams that can drive technology forward, while establishing checks and balances to ensure that the public interest remains central to decision-making.

The future has room for many approaches. What the future doesn’t have room for is complacency. In the digital world, our clients and employers still need competent, trustworthy professionals to inform and guide them. It’s up to each of us to evolve to continually meet that need.