Change / transformation | Leadership | Management / Strategy

Are CPAs like Wile E. Coyote — off the cliff without looking down?

Here’s a thought-provoking (exciting? terrifying?) anecdote from Tom Peters’ new book, The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last.

“Artificial intelligence-driven devices can spot tumors on CT scans better than pathologists and radiologists,” Peters writes. “Machine learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton said, ‘If you work as a radiologist, you are like Wile E. Coyote in the cartoon; you’re already over the edge of the cliff, but you haven’t looked down.’

“Hinton went so far as to recommend that med schools stop training radiologists right now.”


Think about that for a second. Hinton wasn’t talking about some repetitive, data-driven task being automated by machines. He was talking about an entire profession being automated away. This is happening not because machines are being programmed to do this work. It’s happening because machines are learning to do this work … and they’re getting exponentially smarter while they do it.

This is what concerns me about the accounting and finance profession. Machines can crunch numbers faster and more accurately that we humans will ever be able to. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that these machines are learning and getting smarter while they crunch the numbers. They’re becoming more … human. They’re already filing tax returns and preparing financial statements. How long will it be before they’re providing advisory services? We’ve long thought that this was the line in the technological sand — that machines could never provide the insight, empathy, and deep, relational thinking that advisory services require.

But why can’t they? If Moore’s Law is still a law — if technology is advancing at an exponential rate, in other words — then why can’t machines eventually learn to do these human tasks?

If technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, we must accept the fact that, when it comes to tomorrow, almost anything will be possible.

That includes the possibility that machines will one day be able to do almost everything the folks in our profession do today.

Are accounting and finance professionals like radiologists? Are we already over the edge of the cliff, without having looked down?

And if so, what skills will we have to learn to save our profession going forward?

Here are some ideas. Here are a few others.

What do you think?


William D. Sheridan