Five questions for the Accounting Singularity

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You may have heard of the Singularity — the moment predicted by futurists when the evolution of computers and software reaches a point that a true “artificial intelligence” is created. Beyond that, the futurists say, everything in our world will change so rapidly and so profoundly that predicting it all becomes impossible.

They say this because they have never lived through a singularity; if they had, they’d know that they never happen all at once, and even what seem like the most profound, rapid changes usually play out over periods of time that allow for at least some prediction, as well as some preparation.

Accounting, for instance, is at the beginning of such a singularity — a confluence of technologies that, in a relatively short span, will leave the profession unrecognizable. Fortunately, however, you have some breathing space to adjust, ranging anywhere from a few years up to a decade. Here are a handful of questions to get you started on figuring out your life during and after the Accounting Singularity:

  • Why will people pay me? Currently, a huge amount of the value that accountants offer is tied up with compliance work — and more and more, that work will disappear, taken on by intelligent systems. At first they’ll need to be overseen by accountants like you, but eventually, they’ll be autonomous. You’ll need to find other things to charge your clients for, like real-time strategic thinking and forward-looking advice.
  • Who will I work with? You’ll work with relatively fewer accountants, and more and more computers and non-accountants. On the one hand, computers will be handling a lot of your entry-level work, including vast amounts of compliance, while at the same time becoming an increasingly indispensable adjunct to the advisory services that will replace all the compliance work you used to do. And on the other hand, you’ll be dealing with more and more issues that require the expertise of data analysts, software coders, engineers, HR specialists, financial planners, industry specialists, economists and others. You can try to train accountants from your staff in all those disciplines — but often it’ll simply be easier to give actual experts in those disciplines enough background in accounting to get them going.

  • What will I learn? Think of all the intense training time you spend learning the new tax law and regs before filing season, or all the CPE you dedicate to boning up on the latest accounting standards update from FASB — and then forget it. You won’t need to study the nuts and bolts of regulatory and legislative changes, because more and more, intelligent systems will comb through those changes and figure out how to apply them to your clients’ tax returns and general ledgers. Instead, you’ll learn about strategies to turn those changes to your clients’ advantage. And that will take less time, leaving you free to learn about all these technologies that are bringing on the Singularity, and how to create an organization that adapts readily and easily to change.
  • How much time do I have? More than you will later, obviously. While the beginnings of the Singularity are clear all around the profession, it’s still very early days, and technologies like AI and blockchain are still primarily interesting because of their potential. You have time now to learn about them without the pressure of having to implement them immediately. In three to five years, that may no longer be the case.
  • How much will I have to change? That depends on how old you are. If you’re going to retire in the next five or even 10 years, not much at all. And those under, say, 25 probably won’t have to change much either, as they’ll simply grow up into the new world of the Accounting Singularity. For everyone in between, though, it’s safe to predict that the next five to 10 years will require you to change tremendously.
  • Having answers to these questions won’t fully prepare you for life after the Singularity — given the scale of change, nothing can — but they can help make the transition through it a little less terrifying. See you on the other side!

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