Accountants/AI: exit, pursued by a chatbot

Spreadsheet jockeys work hard to maintain Excel bragging rights. Gone are the days when knowing the VLOOKUP search function won you respect. But worse may be to come. Artificial intelligence could eliminate the need for spreadsheet skills altogether.

This will send a cold chill down the spines of financial data ninjas. They habitually moan about “Excel hell”. But for many, Excel is a happy place of neatly ordered columns and rows preferable to the chaotic real world.

Accountancy is among the professions most vulnerable to generative AI, according to research by the University of Pennsylvania and OpenAI. The latter is the Microsoft-backed company whose advanced chatbot has triggered a flood of investment into the sector.

The researchers claim only a handful of jobs are AI resistant. They include dishwashing and stone masonry.

To date, many AI chatbot experiments have focused on gimmicks such as writing sonnets. But AI programmes may be able to prepare financial accounts. Accountants, of course, do many other things. But some of their basic activities appear open to automation.

Excel is already grafting on AI tools. Last month it announced that it would add a generative AI “co-pilot” to the taskbar of Microsoft 365 applications like Excel, allowing users to ask data questions in their own language, not formulas.

Microsoft’s revenue growth dipped to a six-year low in the last quarter as corporate spending tightened. The company is betting that AI integration will spur subscriptions. Overall, AI could drive $200bn of spending online in the US over three years, according to Morgan Stanley.

Is the game over for spreadsheet specialists? For generative AI to achieve required omniscience it still has a lot of learning to do. After that, it needs to produce reliable results.

It will be harder to train AIs if there are more bans of the kind Italy has imposed on OpenAI’s ChatGPT over privacy concerns. And a group of Silicon Valley stars, including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, have called on AI developers to pause experiments for six months.

Microsoft admits its own AI tools are imperfect. There is evidence that ChatGPT concocts answers rather than confesses to ignorance. Generative AI is some way from replacing humans in any job. Accountants do not need to invest in washing up gloves or stone chisels just yet.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what impact you think generative AI could have on accountancy in the comments section below.

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