What Ever Happened to That Scary 2013 Prediction About Robots Taking Over Accounting and Auditing Jobs?

I know it’s difficult to remember before 2016, but try anyway and recall a 2013 study that made the rounds of accounting after it was featured on Planet Money in 2015. By “made the rounds” I mean “the shit scared of everyone,” because the gist of it was that most of your tasks could be automated—rendering you redundant—unless the profession found a way to make customers of it to convince that some sort of accounting magic and judgment is required to balance balance sheets.

The Study — The Future of Employment: How Vulnerable are Jobs to Computerization? – was inspired in part by John Maynard Keynes’ (my least favorite) essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren from 1930. In it, Keynes predicted a future in which technological advances would make people work very few hourly hours, freeing us for artistic pursuits and the existential crises that come with far too much free time. He called this “technological unemployment”, that is, “unemployment due to our discovery of means of labor saving, which is progressing faster than we can find new uses for labour”.

From a 2017 MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy article entitled The Emerging, Unpredictable Age of AI:

“But this is only a temporary phase of misalignment,” [Keynes] added. “I would predict that in a hundred years the standard of living in advanced countries will be four to eight times higher.” Keynes believed that technological advances would lead us to a better future. By 2030, people would likely be working no more than 15 hours a week, and their biggest concern would be using their free time and being free from economic worries.

*checks calendar* Sweet, I only have eight more years to go and we’re done.

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Back to study. Technological revolutions and their impact on employment are of course nothing new to us. The entire city of Detroit is a depressing example of what can happen when people are almost entirely automated from an industry. Will tomorrow’s accounting firms look like today’s Detroit?

a ramshackle house in Detroit with a KPMG logo on it

I’m sorry Detroit. I don’t want to address you specifically. Milwaukee is also looking pretty bad.

Most discussions about automation and its impact on employment focus on the ability of machines—mainly algorithms and programs in this case, but let’s call them machines anyway because it sounds cooler—to perform repetitive and routine tasks. The more repetitive and routine, the easier it is to teach a machine how to do it. So you don’t have to tell us that a large part of the typical workload of accountants can be delegated to machines, provided someone decides to tell the machines what to do. As with interns, interns can complete tasks assigned to them, but very rarely do they have the independent judgment to seek out tasks to perform. This shift toward automation is already happening, and companies are investing heavily in AI and analytics. And you are Not spending the same big bucks on human salaries, but that’s a discussion for another day. The thing is, we’re now at the point where the algorithms are more intuitive than interns. And that’s the part that should freak you out a little.

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Keep in mind that this study was written almost ten years ago and a lot has happened in machine learning since then:

Although the magnitude of these developments remains to be seen, estimates by MGI (2013) suggest that sophisticated algorithms could replace around 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide. Therefore, while technological advances throughout economic history have been largely limited to the mechanization of manual tasks that require physical labor, technological advances can be expected to contribute to a wide range of cognitive tasks in the 21st century, which has so far remained the case largely a human domain. Of course, many professions affected by these developments are still a long way from being fully computerized, meaning that computerizing some tasks will simply free up time for human workers to do other tasks. Nevertheless, the trend is clear: computers are increasingly challenging human labor in a variety of cognitive tasks (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).

scored various jobs with nine traits according to their
vulnerability to computerization

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Mental health and substance abuse social workers (found under Community and Social Services). This job has a 0.3% chance of being automated. That’s because it ranks highly for cleverness, negotiation skills, and helping others. The job most likely to be done by a robot? telemarketing. No surprise; it’s already happening.

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