Taking stock of artificial intelligence.

Author:Banham, Russ
 
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Artificial intelligence (AI) is either the greatest thing to ever happen to human work or the dread of our existence. Like most polarizing topics, the truth typically resides somewhere in the middle.

Yes, the "robots" are here and more are coming. All types of work will be changed in good ways and not so good ways. For professionals in finance and accounting, robotic process automation (RPA) is being used to perform rote, repetitive tasks, reducing the need for technical accountants who did this work previously. But RPA, which mimics human behavior, is not AI, which uses machine learning to draw inferences and conclusions, thinking like humans.

What will work be like if and when AI truly takes off? It depends on whom you ask. Studies by well-regarded research organizations generally are either Utopian or dystopian in their projections, with not much gray in between.

Gartner predicts that AI will create more jobs than it eliminates by 2020. "Starting in 2020, Al-related job creation will cross into positive territory, reaching two million net-new jobs in 2025," Gartner said in late 2017.

Oxford University's Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimated in a 2013 research paper that nearly half (47%) of all jobs in the United States were at high risk of seeing unemployment through automation in the next 10 to 20 years (see The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? available at tinyurl.com/y9mcxlep). To be fair, Oxford's researchers lump together RPA with AI in reading the tea leaves.

The more important point is that AI will change the nature of work and therefore the jobs built around these activities. We reached out to a mix of thought leaders, data scientists, financial software providers, and consultants to posit the future of work at midsize and smaller businesses, with an emphasis on finance and accounting jobs. We learned that the likely impact of AI on small and midsize businesses is somewhat unclear as much of the current transformation is happening in larger businesses.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

"What many people often think is AI is actually predictive data analytics and RPA," said data architect Sapna Nagaraj, director of Big Data and Machine Learning at financial and accounting automation software provider BlackLine. 'There's a lot of confusion over the meaning of these different technologies. But true AI, where a machine thinks like a human being, is still in its infancy."

AI at its simplest is a...

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