Just about four years ago, I wrote an article for CFO entitled “The Robo-Accountants Are Coming,” which was meant to calm the hysteria that was rapidly building over the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in professional services. At the time, we knew that AI would soon be infiltrating the audit functions of major accounting firms. We knew it would have a significant impact on business. But it was still hard to separate the hype from reality.

Would the technology replace humans as the fear mongers warned? Would it fail spectacularly as the curmudgeons admonished? Or would AI emerge as just another efficiency tool that we had come to rely on to keep pace with a world in which everything keeps moving faster than it did the day before?

That answer has revealed itself over a series of recent events that make it clear that AI has officially gone mainstream. The most prominent of these, of course, is the prominent role that AI solutions are playing in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. AI solutions are tracking the virus’ spread, identifying trends that could speed the development of treatments, and even determining the likelihood that patients will develop severe symptoms.

Even before COVID-19 thrust AI into the spotlight, the technology was gaining widespread adoption in the most surprising places. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was busy working on AI-driven auditing and transaction analysis tools and that it was already using AI in its criminal investigations unit to identify non-filers. Yes, the IRS, the government bureaucracy more commonly associated with decades-old green screen technology than state-of-the-art AI-powered software, now makes AI part of its core tech lineup.

The IRS is not alone among global tax authorities. Brazil, Canada, and several other countries are already using AI in everything from enforcement to customer service functions.

It is safe to say that AI has now officially gone mainstream.

In the span of just a few years, the technology that spawned so much speculation and starry-eyed hyperbole has been fully integrated into the healthcare, tax, and accounting toolboxes. And, contrary to what the alarmists feared, we’re all still here to talk about it.

While governments ramp up their AI efforts, corporations and accounting firms already have many years of tech development and implementation under their belts. AI has automated large pieces of the audit process for the Big Four by ingesting large amounts of data and scouring it for anomalies and flagging issues that require further investigation. 

The technology is being used in the tax research process to surface information faster and support natural language searches.

I recently had a conversation about this very topic with Mark Goodburn, global head of advisory at KPMG, whose firm has been a leader in the implementation of AI technologies into tax and audit. He explained how the growth of AI has manifested itself.

“If you had asked us three or four years ago, ‘where are you going with technology and how will it affect our people?’ the answer might not have been so clear. But the fact is, we use more technology than we ever have. And we have more people today than we ever had in the history of the firm. And I can say the same thing three years from now, five years from now,” Goodburn explained.

He then went on to describe precisely how AI is being developed to augment — not eliminate — human functions.

“As technology takes out some of the standardized steps that exist at the beginning of the process — the repetitive data gathering and review-type steps — we can then use our time to focus on the judgment that you can make from insights in the data.”

He added: “The technology and the increase in talent are going to go hand in hand.”

So that brings us to the big question: If AI, which was pitched as a massive disruptor, has already become such a mainstream part of the routine operation of tax professionals, what’s next?

The short answer is that we need to disrupt ourselves to find out. The expansion of technology that has swept through the professional services sector over the last several years shows no sign of slowing. But contrary to the doomsday forecasts, it’s not reducing the need for people; it’s increasing it. It’s also elevating the level of skill and sophistication those people will need to stay competitive.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, it is also delivering new insights, new ways to think about compliance and enforcement, and much faster results that go into the human decision-making process. We have more, higher quality information to work with. As a result, we need to evolve the way we process that information and make strategic decisions.

That’s the next disruption. Now that we have powerful AI technologies augmenting our capabilities, we need to learn to maximize that power. It’s like when Iron Man tries on his suit for the first time. He is so intoxicated by his new-found superpowers that he flies out of the Earth’s atmosphere, freezes the suit, and plummets back to Earth.

Now’s the time when we need to stretch our minds and throw away old notions about what was possible and what wasn’t as we train ourselves to harness the technology to its fullest potential. 

The current business response to the COVID-19 crisis has only underscored that fact. A few years ago, the idea of shifting global workforces to work-from-home operations would have been impossible. Today, thanks to the last several years of cloud-based technology adoption and growth of remote working tools, the transition has been rolled out globally. We will get through this crisis, but there will always be new challenges ahead. The magic formula for getting through those challenges is flexibility and constant adaptation.

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

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