The table of doom

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It’s not often that a table induces widespread panic, but a few years back “The Economist” managed to terrify people in professions around the world, including accountants, with a simple list of figures. The table showed the results of a study that indicated how likely a particular job or profession was to be automated; on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 being a certainty of automation, accountants and auditors scored 0.94, giving them the second-highest risk of automation (telemarketers had the highest, at 0.99). It was widely reproduced, cited, referenced and otherwise used as a warning — by Accounting Today, among many, many others — that a coming wave of technology has the potential to eliminate the need for people to perform a great many tasks. (You can see our version below.)

While it was handy as a harbinger of doom, the table wasn’t the only place accountants were being warned about a future where they would be automated away. Cognitive computing, we’re often told, will do away with the need for tax preparers; robotic process automation will significantly curtail the need for accountants and bookkeepers; blockchain will eliminate the need for audits, and thus the need for auditors. Better software is handling more of the grunt work that entry-level staff used to do, allowing firms to hire fewer young accountants. All around, technology is encroaching on jobs that used to require people, leaving many to wonder if there will be far fewer accountants in the future.

It’s certainly true that the future of the profession will look very different than its past, and even its present. But the doomsday scenario where machines take over and drive humanity out of accounting is highly unlikely, for a number of reasons.

To start, while new technologies may eliminate functions and tasks, that’s not the same as eliminating jobs. The ATM is a famous example: When it was first introduced, it was assumed that it would lead to banks that were entirely devoid of human beings, but in fact, decades after their introduction, there are more people working in banks than ever — they just don’t spend their time handing out cash or processing routine deposits. There won’t be less demand for living, breathing accountants; they’ll just be needed for different things. One of those jobs will be implementing, monitoring and managing all those automated systems, and attesting to their reliability and proper functioning. Judgment remains a uniquely human skill, just as integrity is a uniquely human attribute. Machines may never accidentally transpose numbers or take a day off or get tired, but they also have no morals or ethics; they never take stands or tell a client that they’re doing the wrong thing.

Finally, it’s important to remember that very little technology lives up to its hype. Machine learning, for instance, has tremendous potential — but it’s also seriously hampered by the fact that machines require data to learn, and most of the data currently available is a mess, and will need to be cleaned up. Similarly, much is made of the fact that blockchain is supposedly impervious to hackers or fraud, but the fact is that the bad guys have hardly gotten started on it. Give them time and enough applications and they’ll find a way — they always do. And that will call for new ways of fighting fraud, and new ways of attesting to information, and those will call for new people to fill those jobs.

In the end, it won’t be people that are driven out of the profession — it will be tedious grunt work, and old practices that are no longer relevant. That table in “The Economist” isn’t a warning of doom and massive unemployment; it’s a promise of change, and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of accounting.

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