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Artificial intelligence: friend or foe for the mid-size firm?

Maciej Kokot and Wojciech Kokot of Poland tax advisory, legal and accounting member firm ALTO highlight use of AI by mid-size law and accounting firms and explain why we should be more optimistic about the future of the workplace.

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When we hear the term “Artificial Intelligence”, what comes to mind is usually Arnold Schwarzenegger’s epic role in “The Terminator” series in the 1980s and 1990s. These days, we are presented with an AI vision of the future that can seem somewhat bleak: computers replacing humans at work, taking on work once reserved for “white-collar” professionals.

Technology is often named as one of the threats to mid-size accounting and law firms’ existence and for good reason. The news is full of headlines citing which professions are going to disappear within a few decades, intertwined with headlines highlighting new capabilities achieved by computers performing cognitive functions such as text analysis, natural language understanding and processing or recognising objects in images.

Before we pack up our bags and go looking for new jobs, I strongly recommend taking a quick online course on Artificial Intelligence developed by the University of Helsinki: Elements of AI. In this short yet comprehensive overview of history, the methods used and developments in the field, Professor Teemu Roos and his team explain in layman’s terms what computers are actually capable of (despite the current hype in the media) and, more importantly, what they will not be capable of in the foreseeable future.

The course itself is a lot of fun– you will solve logical problems using algorithms employed by computers, while gaining understanding of different tools and methods which collectively constitute “Artificial Intelligence” as we know it today. Once those become familiar, you will probably see technology as a great opportunity for professional mid-caps, rather than a threat (if you don’t see it this way already, of course!).

Use of AI is part of everyday life

Sometimes, people do not even realise that they are interacting with different AI applications on a daily basis. One of the simplest examples of such interaction is the growing use of chatbots– AI algorithms use Natural Language Processing to interact with humans. Chatbots are mostly used by companies as their first point of contact. Instead of devoting employee time to establish the customer’s issue and which employee should handle it, a chatbot is often capable of handling a conversation in such a way that simple queries can be addressed immediately. More complex ones can be escalated to the appropriate specialist, with a note indicating what seems to be the issue for further investigation. This allows organizations to focus larger portions of their time on value-adding activities.

More effective use of professionals' time

The idea of shifting from the continuous struggle against repetitive activities towards a more efficient approach to routine tasks seems to be at the core of the majority of known AI applications used by accounting and law firms. Professionals tend to be overloaded with simple yet time-consuming tasks that could be easily replaced with advanced Artificial Intelligence algorithms.

A study recently published by LegalTech Poland indicates that 66% of legal practitioners believe that AI technology may replace lawyers in conducting routine activities (such as working time registration), allowing them to focus on tasks that require their expert knowledge and experience.

The same rule applies to accounting services – by adopting AI-based tools, accountants can automate repeatable tasks and focus on other activities. This can result in increased effectiveness and more time available for value-adding activities.

In view of the above, should we see AI as less of a threat and more of an opportunity?  Do these new technologies offer the opportunity for us to be more effective and to free ourselves of the dull, repetitive yet necessary tasks, and in general, to work smarter? We are no longer on the brink of a new, digital era - it is already here. And since AI is a part of it, it is quite comforting to know what to expect and how can we benefit from it.

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