• Research reveals machine learning is becoming more relevant for many organisations as the hype increasingly becomes reality
• Huge opportunities for better business intelligence and across a range of activities carried out by accountants
• Adoption of machine learning needs to be based on legitimate business need rather than just wanting to be seen as using AI
• Ethical challenges lie ahead – accountants need to align professional competence and due care with AI and machine learning

A third of accountants currently see AI as all or mostly hype, while nearly 60 per cent say that in three years’ time it will become a reality, according to global research amongst nearly 2,000 ACCA members in 111 countries.

The findings are published in a new report from ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) Machine learning: more science than fiction which highlights how new tech developments have a massive potential for the accountancy profession. The report focuses on machine learning, which is the ability of computers to ‘learn’ and make decisions or predictions based on analysis of large sets of data.

Narayanan Vaidyanathan, the report’s author and head of business insights at ACCA says: ‘Machine learning is a critical area of development for accountants. Looking ahead it will be crucial to understand its value and benefits, as well as the ethical challenges it presents. In all this, the starting point has to be a legitimate business need with a clear understanding of what it can bring to the organisation.

‘AI and machine learning can add value to the work accountants do – from generating valuable insights for business decision-making, to fraud detection, risk assessment, understanding complexities in taxation and also with more effective non-financial reporting. So the accountancy profession needs to understand how AI and machine learning works, especially given its role in influencing the trust we have in the decisions of these systems.

‘As with any technology, with power comes responsibility. In the case of machine learning ethical considerations are never far away. Accountants need to consider and manage potential ethical compromise from decision-making by algorithm, such as the risk of bias in the data set that feeds them and the issue of accountability for decisions made.’

The report emphasises that at a minimum all finance professionals should know how AI is evolving and be alert to how the developing capabilities could overlap with their impact on their roles. To prepare for the digital future, ACCA already examines a range of digital topics within its Masters level ACCA Qualification. It has also enhanced the digital content across many of the exams for students, while also ensuring digital is weaved into members’ continuous professional development.

Narayanan Vaidyanathan concludes: ‘Machine learning’s entrance into the accountancy mainstream is a huge opportunity, where professional accountants have the chance to develop a core understanding of emerging technologies, while continually building their interpretive, contextual and relationship-led skills. They can then truly benefit from the ability of technologies like machine learning to support them with intelligent analysis of vast amounts of data.’