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How AI opens the doors of automation

Technology

Accountants are waking up to the potential of AI and, like it or not, there’s no turning back.

By Fiona Dixon 10 minute read

The introduction of ChatGPT by OpenAI has revealed the potential of artificial intelligence to positively transform how accountants work. The technology underpinning ChatGPT isn’t new. Professionals have been using AI for many years, the most obvious example being through autocorrect or predictive text.

But what is new about the release of ChatGPT is that AI is no longer something that just works in the background – it’s now working right in front of the end user.

San Francisco-based OpenAI only released ChatGPT last November, but already by January this year 13 million unique users were using the bot. OpenAI has already released an update based on the newest version of the firm’s language system, GPT-4.

OpenAI has the potential to open new possibilities for AI within accounting that are ripe for automation, including:

  • Processing invoices and categorising expenses
  • Automating the analysis of data
  • Performing tasks deemed repetitive
  • Creating financial and audit reports
  • Generating financial projections

At HLB Mann Judd, we launched an automation and business transformation division in August 2021 after recognising the rising issue of staff shortages and the increasing compliance requirements faced by clients.

By using a combination of Microsoft Office 365 and UiPath, the firm has created eight bots to date. We’ve also created avatars and personalities for these bots, to help drive staff engagement.

There’s Shelley, who assists with letters, resolutions and address changes. She was very helpful during our recent office move.

We have Anna, who looks after searches on ASIC and the Personal Property Securities Register and keeps track of proposals.

Then there’s Harry Botter, who works in audit, creating planning letters and closing letters, audit reports, engagement letters and independence declarations. He also downloads ASX announcements for listed clients and formats trial balances.

Meanwhile, Warren (Buffett) works in wealth and helps with the quarterly reports we send to clients, portfolio analysis and cover letters.

Accounting firms need to find ways of creating efficiencies without just increasing people (because there’s a limited supply of them). That is where automation comes in, and it’s changing what staff learn and how they learn. Bots can be used to speed up the processing of back-end documentation and undertake other administrative tasks. A key part of the whole process has been quantifying time and cost savings. Automation frees people up to undertake less mundane tasks and allows them to deal with clients.

Staff are starting to see the benefits of automation to the point that they now get frustrated if it is unavailable because they don’t want to have to do it manually anymore.

Drawbacks, but no turning back.

As with any new technology, AI is not without its risks. For example, without the right facts in its database, ChatGPT can make inaccurate information look true. ChatGPT also cannot emulate an accountant’s understanding of laws and ethics gained through years of practical experience, and it risks leading to serious misinterpretations of the law. But this is where human accountants come in to provide value to clients.

For all its positives, AI is unable to:

  • Develop meaningful relationships
  • Apply facts correctly when there is missing information
  • Execute skill sets that require higher technical skills
  • Understand the nuances of tax law in different jurisdictions

No matter how advanced, AI will not make the role of the accountant redundant. But what ChatGPT does show is that all professions, not just accounting, need to embrace AI and its possibilities to ensure they remain competitive and boost efficiency.

Fiona Dixon is a business transformation advisory partner at HLB Mann Judd Sydney.

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