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The robots are here, and they aren’t leaving

There was a time — not too long ago — when things changed slowly. Groundbreaking new technologies would arrive, and we’d have plenty of time to implement and master them. We could fully understand their impact and the advantages and efficiencies they’d offer.

Remember those days? Neither do I.

The half-life of a new technology is dropping precipitously. So is the timespan between “cutting edge” and “commonplace.” It’s almost a cliché, but it’s also true: The pace of change has never been this fast, while it also will never be this slow again.

For finance and accounting professionals, that’s not a bad thing. The constant ingestion of disruptive business technologies has forced us to evolve and learn new skills that allow us to work alongside these new technologies rather than compete against them. At the same time, advanced technologies that automate tasks have enabled us to provide more value to our internal clients, customers, and organizations.

Ask and ye shall receive
At the top of the list of disruptive technologies are bots. They are changing how everyday tasks — search, for instance, or transactional accounting and computational tasks — get done. Bots sound futuristic, but they’re simply pieces of software that automate tasks via machine learning. Rather than sitting at a keyboard and searching for what we need, we can simply ask our bots for the answers. Your Amazon Echo is a great example.

“In finance departments,” Oracle’s Steve Cox writes, “bots can automate repetitive processes that consume employee hours — time that could be better spent on higher-level tasks, such as faster decision-making and architecting a new financial strategy. Today, companies like Oracle are embedding voice bots into business software to help with tasks like recommending suppliers, filing expense reports — even advising which invoices to pay first. We don’t have to double-click or tap anymore; we ask a question and get an immediate answer.”

Cloud ERP: Our crystal ball
If bots are making it easier to find or do what you need, cloud enterprise resource planning, or cloud ERP, is making it easier to predict what you’ll need. Cloud-delivered applications have enough compute and memory power to automate many of the back-office functions that consume so much of a finance professional’s time — things like payable, receivables, reconciliations, and many other transaction-heavy functions. This frees an executive to spend more time on strategic initiatives like innovation, forecasting, and finding your next competitive advantage.

“Whatever the path, an upgrade to cloud ERP gives financial leaders the ability to deliver strategic insights and collaboratively contribute to planning and organizing for the future state — which looks nothing like the past,” Cox writes. “Transformational technologies are reinventing work and redefining value across industries.”

Finance: The Magic 8-Ball
Because technological change is so fast and we are at just the beginning of this type of automation, the coming changes are going to be substantial. In fact, automation could change the fundamental structure of the finance function going forward.

A new report from KPMG predicts that automation and big data will physically reconfigure the finance function. Increasingly, finance professionals will work in centers of excellence (CoEs) — centralized units consisting of “data scientists, finance experts, and intelligent automation.”

“These centers will analyze vast amounts of internal and external data to help the business answer such key questions as how to deploy capital, where to expand, and what product lines to grow,” CFO.com’s David McCann writes.

Finance’s future is ever-evolving
With the help of these new technologies, the future of finance is no longer transactional — it’s strategic and predictive.

Beyond that? Who knows?

Given the exponential rate at which technology is advancing, our thoughts about the future must start with the assumption that almost anything will be possible because technology will continue to evolve.

An example: IBM built a machine called Deep Blue in the mid-1990s that, eventually, could beat a human at chess. In 2011, IBM built a machine called Watson that could defeat a human at the game show Jeopardy! Those machines had artificial intelligence constructs: They learned and became smarter each time they played the game.

But they couldn’t reason enough to do something such as have a debate with a human.

Now comes word, via CNN, that IBM has created an AI system that can debate. Project Debater faced off against Harish Natarajan, a world-champion debater. The machine lost … but it won at the same time.

“Project Debater, which has been in the works since 2012, is designed to come up with coherent, convincing speeches of its own, while taking in the arguments of a human opponent and creating its own rebuttal,” CNN’s Rachel Metz writes. “It even formulates its own closing argument. To generate its arguments and rebuttals, Project Debater uses newspaper and magazine articles from its own database, and also takes in the nuances of the human opponent’s arguments. It is not connected to the internet and cannot crib arguments from sites like Wikipedia.”

How long will it be before Project Debater defeats a human? Given the pace of change, I’m guessing not long at all.

For years, we humans have been telling ourselves that we have a leg up on the machines because those machines can’t reason; they can only crunch the numbers really fast and accurately.

Now, though, the machines can reason.

And that means the evolution of the accounting and finance professional will continue at a pace we’ve never seen before.

That pace has never been faster.

And it will never be this slow again.

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