February 25, 2020
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Illustration by Jon Krause

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly altering several industries. The efficient, practical and organizational benefits of AI are far too effective to ignore, particularly in occupations that require a lot of crunching numbers. 

Cory Ng, assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Accounting at the Fox School, investigated just how much AI is impacting the accounting industry. 

“Today’s current AI applications are really good at performing specific tasks. In many cases, they’re much better than humans,“ says Ng. “For example, companies use machine learning algorithms to automatically extract data from thousands of contracts and analyze it for compliance with leasing standards.”

Tasks like this are typically performed by a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). These highly skilled individuals must pass a rigorous 4-part exam, gain enough work experience for initial licensure and also continue their professional education to maintain that license.

Even considering the detailed, specialized requirements to become a CPA, AI still can exceed the performance of accountants in some ways. “Unlike humans, computers can work 24/7, which means this technology can analyze large volumes of data much quicker than a human,” adds Ng.

Ng and his co-authors, John Alarcon, DBA ’18, and Troy Fine, all of whom are members of the editorial board of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, reviewed several academic and professional journal publications and collaborated with experts to understand how AI is affecting their industry. Their research, “Accounting AI and Machine Learning: Applications and Challenges,” was published in the Pennsylvania CPA Journal. 

If an AI application can perform the same tasks as a highly experienced human accountant, what does this mean for the future of those pursuing a career in accounting? 

Ng describes AI technology as less of a replacement and more of an assistant to accountants. “AI will change the accounting profession in the coming years, but it will not eliminate the need for accountants,” explains Ng. “At this point, machines cannot build relationships with clients nor engage in abstract reasoning, concept formulation and strategic planning. AI technology will allow accountants to perform their jobs more effectively, accurately and potentially at a lower cost.”

As AI is taking on a bigger role in accounting, Ng and other educators are working to implement it into their curriculum. He is currently designing a new course that will be piloted this summer in the Master of Accountancy (MAcc) program. “In this course, I incorporate a module on artificial intelligence. Thankfully, EY, one of the Big Four accounting firms, has developed an innovative curriculum where they have some existing materials on how to teach AI,” explains Ng.

What does the future hold? “We are in the early stages of AI adoption,” says Ng. “My expectation is that AI technology will continue to improve, and the rate of adoption will continue to increase.  Overall, I think the advantages of AI will outweigh the disadvantages, in the same way that I think the benefits of smartphones in our society exceed the costs.”

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