AI Gets Real in Professional Services

Auditors are developing a level of speed and accuracy that would have been considered superhuman less than a decade ago.
Vincent RyanSeptember 26, 2019

Remember when researchers predicted that professional services jobs in industries like insurance, tax and accounting, and finance and legal would soon be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)? That was in 2013 when AI was just starting to peak on the hype cycle, and headlines like “Your Next Accountant Will Be a Robot” and “The Robots are Coming for Wall Street” were being cooked up daily.

Today, six years into the evolution of AI in professional services, it’s safe to say that the dystopian version of the future has not materialized. In fact, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of accounting professionals is projected to increase 10% over the next 10 years, which is faster than average for all other professions. In fact, there is a growing talent shortage in the industry that has many large and mid-size accounting firms struggling to fill open roles.

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How could those early predictions have been so far off? The fact is, AI has fundamentally changed the way we work and how we think about the future of professional services, but it has done so not by replacing humans, but by making humans better at their jobs. And that creates new efficiencies and opportunities that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Unlocking the Cyborg Audit

Take the audit function in an accounting firm as an example. Audit has always been the one part of the accounting workflow that AI fear-mongers have targeted as ripe for disruption. It makes sense. The audit function contains a great deal of repetition, with auditors spending their days chasing data from clients, cross-checking that data with transaction records, and inputting the results into an auditing software system. These types of tasks read like a playbook for AI automation, and — in many cases — firms have succeeded in streamlining the process with AI.

Today, our clients are able to automate roughly 30% of their audit processes by using data ingestion tools that let data flow freely between the client and auditor databases and automatically screen for any fluctuations or anomalies that would require further review. That means all of those incremental steps in the process — the back-and-forth work to simply access and ingest the data, the flow of the data into the final work product, confirmation of the data against bank account records, the validation and monitoring for inconsistencies — just happen with no manual intervention.

So, that must mean job losses, right?

Not really.

Not Designed for Data Entry

What’s happening as these technologies become integrated into the audit workflow is that auditors are developing a level of speed and accuracy that would have been considered superhuman less than a decade ago. This is enabling them to focus more time and energy on higher risk parts of the audit — the ones that expose them to much higher liability risk and take a great deal more time to investigate. These include areas like the collectability of accounts receivable and the valuation of goodwill and other intangible assets that require a subjective level of interpretation to get right.

As a result, the introduction of AI is reducing time spent on tedious, labor-intensive grunt work and opening up new opportunities for humans to unlock more capacity for the kinds of nuanced, high-value tasks that humans are best at.

Getting Smarter Faster

A similar phenomenon is playing out in the legal space, where AI natural language processing (NLP) technology is being used heavily to streamline the research process and surface new insights from legal text.

In a traditional keyword search-based environment, law librarians and junior-associates would spend many hours creating complicated Boolean search strings to ferret out the information they needed on a particular precedent. Now, they can just access the same information in plain English.

In addition to reading and interpreting text, AI is also being used by legal professionals to surface meaningful insights from that text. An example from currently available technology would be an application we developed that scans legal briefs and memoranda and uses AI to suggest other relevant cases to include or weak cases to omit based on cognitive analysis of the underlying case law.

Evolution, Not Revolution

Just as we’re seeing in the accounting profession, these advances are not replacing legal professionals. Quite the opposite, they are making the workflow more manageable in the face of ever-growing amounts of data that must be processed by today’s knowledge workers.

In that sense, the growth of AI in professional services has been evolutionary. Like a new appendage formed over the course of generations to help a fish swim faster or a lion hunt better, AI has become a vital adaptation that’s helping the professional services sector rise to the new challenges it’s facing every day.

Brian Peccarelli is co-chief operating officer of Thomson Reuters.

Image: Getty