Will you have a place in the future workforce?

Mini robot
Andrea Murad By Andrea Murad, CA Today

27 February 2018

The next iteration of automation in the workplace and gig economy is still very new, and putting aside any Elon Musk doomsday scenarios, it’s now a question of when artificial intelligence will create profound changes and how CAs will feel the impact.

According to PwC’s Workforce of the Future report, 73% of survey respondents believe that technology can never replace the human mind, but 37% are worried artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will put jobs at risk.

Talk to any futurist on the other hand and - while as a group they may disagree on exactly what the future looks like - they agree that there will still be human jobs.

How the gig economy and ‘low engagement’ work could be affected

AI applications can comprehend written or spoken information where the interaction can be completely frictionless and human-free, and humans overcome difficult connections between paper and digital systems.

“In the loosest possible sense, we’re talking about any computerized system to replace work,” said Tom Cheesewright, Applied Futurist at Book of the Future.

AI is a learning system that doesn’t need to be explicitly programmed with step-by-step instructions, and can be defined as any machine that takes over cognitive or manual work, said Tom, but “we overestimate how intelligent the AI has to be to fundamentally change the nature of work. We’re a long way off to get anything like Data [from Star Trek].”

Accountants of the future will have to have different skills to interact and interpret what the AI systems are doing.

Looking at the changes technology has already made to the workplace, today’s workers are busier than ever. Industries further along in automation - like manufacturing - have a great need for people with technical skills; essentially the jobs that act as the interface between human and machine.

“There’s going to be a business case trade-off about whether the technology investment will be worth it [rather] than paying people,” said Simon Horner-Long, partner in A.T. Kearney's Digital Transformation Practice. “As that evolves, there will be new jobs coming into the gig economy that aren’t there today - it will evolve as some of those jobs are automated.”

AI systems in the workplace are inevitable, and as technology advances, how we work will move in lockstep. “[Accountants] of the future will have to have different skills to interact and interpret what the AI systems are doing,” said Jim Carroll, CPA certified global futurist. “It’s not like AI will take our jobs away, it’ll challenge how we do our jobs.”

The New Back Office

The highly repeatable tasks will be the first to go. “What usually happens with these technologies is they take out 80% of the work for the low engagement stuff,” said Tom. “You still have the high engagement work where you need more interaction.”

This is the first line of support for call centres, delivery drivers or letter carriers, and for law and accounting firms, simple tasks like collecting, validating, verifying and presenting data.

Machines aren’t great at curating, or discovering and quantifying new sources of information though, nor are they great at communicating an idea to customers. “The ability to communicate, particularly when combined with that creative capability, is where human beings remain strong,” said Tom.

While machines can process data faster than humans, we know what to ask and how to present those answers to colleagues or customers, and can combine the analytical with communication: an in-demand skill within finance functions.

No corporate department will be immune to these technologies, however. “As they become more sophisticated, we will see incredible breakthroughs in a number of areas, such as enhanced customer service, workforce management, and process optimisation, amongst hundreds of other use cases,” said Rob McCargow, PwC's AI Programme Leader.

Adding value through automation

The nature of work will shift to more value-adding jobs, as low-level skilled jobs will be increasingly handed to the machines, such as Sally, the robot who makes your salad, and the self-driving delivery robot.

When the finance function is fully digitized, professionals will spend more time developing insight and being able to drive decisions in real time, said Simon.

In every single field, the level of knowledge that people need to know to do their job is increasing.

And as Jim commented: “We’ll never have an AI system that can take current or future tax code and can turn that into an elaborate tax structure.”

Skillsets that combine the creative, technical and communicative are good training grounds for what are defensible skills. “In accounting, too much emphasis is placed on the technical - the junior ranks where people are doing the hard jobs that could be replaced by machines in a relatively short space of time,” said Tom. “It creates a problem for the industry because there’s a small pool to choose from, for who migrates up to the top.”

Everything’s connected and needs increased knowledge

“We’re going into the world of the Jetsons, and we’ve a whole bunch of Flintstones running around,” said Jim. “In every single field, the level of knowledge that people need to know to do their job is increasing.”

Sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) are already changing how we work and are being adopted in many industries. Cars, appliances, humans and even cows, for example, have sensors to monitor and collect data.

For a machine, owners know when a problem’s going to happen and can schedule maintenance - the repairman of the future will be in a control room uploading software to make repairs.

Sensors on humans monitor health and can help to prevent epidemics when combined with geographic data. Data from a Cowlar collar (described as ‘Fitbit for cows’) is collected by drones and helps a rancher monitor their herd’s health from afar.

The new jobs and careers that are unfolding are part of the overall change, said Jim. With the IoT, “everything hyper-connects and you layer data on top of it - you have new jobs that emerge from that.”

About the author

Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.comFOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.


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