The Age of Artificial Intelligence

Maciej Hryniewicki, PhD and Marilyn Wang, CPA, CA

On November 7, CPA Manitoba hosted over 100 members, candidates and students for a session on The Age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Marilyn Wang, CPA, CA and Maciej Hryniewicki, PhD from PwC Canada gave a presentation based on the organization’s 2019 AI Predictions report.

There were many key takeaways from the presentation revolving around two central themes:

  • AI is advancing quickly and CPAs need to keep up with technology trends.
  • AI is something that is going to be a positive change for the world.

Key Takeaways

When defining AI systems, Wang and Hryniewicki outlined four different types:

  • Assisted intelligence: AI systems that aid humans in making decisions or taking actions.
  • Augmented intelligence: AI systems that enhance human decision making and continuously learn from their interactions with humans and the environment.
  • Automation: AI systems that perform manual and cognitive tasks that are either routine or non-routine with limited to no human intervention.
  • Autonomous intelligence: AI systems that adapt to different situations and can act independently, without human assistance.

PwC predicts these four types of AI systems will have a dramatic effect on economic activity, contributing $15.7 trillion to the global GDP by 2030. The two regions that will see the biggest impacts are China (26.1% of total GDP) and North America (14.5% of total GDP).

In the next three years, many different sectors are going to see a big uptick in the adoption of AI systems, the report predicts. The top four industries are:

  • Retail (54% increase)
  • Technology, communications and entertainment (47% increase) 
  • Financial services (41% increase)
  • Transportation and logistics (41% increase)

Finally, in a survey conducted by PwC they found that 38% of executives believe that AI will create more jobs for their employees and 56% will develop a plan to identify new roles and skills as a result of AI.

Q & A with Marilyn Wang, CPA, CA and Maciej Hryniewicki, PhD

After the presentation, CPA Manitoba had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Marilyn Wang, CPA, CA and Maciej Hryniewicki, PhD, and ask them a few questions.

1. What do you do in your role?

Marilyn: As a Partner in the Analytics practice at PwC, I focus on Value Creation which is about applying AI and analytics solutions to deliver maximum value for our clients. We provide advisory services for organizations, big and small, helping them with their AI journey from strategy to implementation. This includes co-creating and building fully integrated AI solutions that are customized to our clients’ needs - all focused on delivering value and performance improvement every step of the way. I partner with the Private Equity, Retail and Real Estate industries.

Maciej: As a Manager in the Analytics practice, I work closely with large multinational clients to design, develop and foster the adoption of AI solutions that target specific business problems. This entails developing large-scale machine learning and AI solutions, ranging from analytics strategy and high-level design through to architecture deployment, digital transformation and solution implementation.

2. How would you define Artificial Intelligence?

Marilyn: Artificial intelligence is the collective term we use for computer systems that can sense their environment. Much like humans, they can think, learn, act and make decisions based on what they are sensing in the environment based on the data it consumes. Simply put, it is the humanization of machines.

3. What drew you to data analytics?

Marilyn: As a CPA and Finance professional, I come at this from a business lens and I see the power of using data to transform how we operate and how we make big decisions. It is this transformative power of data that gets me excited. While I’m a numbers person, I am also a people person so I also enjoy the co-creation process of innovating with data and having our team of AI specialists work with our clients to jointly design new solutions and bringing it to life to drive real tangible value.

Maciej: Data analytics provides the means to translate raw and unprocessed information into actionable insights that have the potential to change the way businesses operate. When coupled with AI—a technology that impacts a number of different industries and revolutionizes the way people work—this combination becomes a powerful game changer. Working with clients and customers who are at the forefront of adopting these new and innovative, emerging technologies is certainly what excites me most about the field.

4. Generally speaking, how is AI used today and what can we anticipate in the immediate future?

Marilyn: Today, we are seeing AI being used more for productivity gains by automating highly manual, routine tasks. Let’s take an Insurance example, an AI bot could automate the entire claims process from beginning to end in a matter of seconds instead of taking days to settle a claim. This has huge impact on productivity if we can scale these types of examples across the entire enterprise. In the next few years, I believe we will see more of these types of examples rolled out across many enterprises in multiple industries.

Maciej: It comes down to two key drivers: productivity and consumption. The productivity gains mentioned by Marilyn come from businesses automating processes and augmenting their existing labour force with AI technologies. Consumption, on the other hand, results from more readily available and personalized content creation such as high-quality AI-enhanced products or services. In the long run, each of these drivers will ultimately allow consumers to make better decisions as well as greater use of their time.

5. What are the benefits of introducing AI-powered solutions to a business?

Marilyn: As mentioned, productivity and efficiencies can be gained with AI and robotics allowing us to streamline processes, work smarter, better, faster and cheaper. I’ve talked a lot about productivity, but significant benefits can also be had from unlocking insights to make better decisions and enabling innovation for new products and services powered by AI.

Maciej: When implemented correctly, AI allows businesses to digest and process increasingly larger volumes of data that are more commonly becoming too vast and time-consuming for human workforces to thoroughly explore. For mundane and repetitive tasks, this facilitates labour productivity improvements by allowing humans to focus on more high-value activities. For more complex applications, this opens the door for businesses to increase large-scale operational efficiencies by reaping the benefits of AI across numerous elements of the value chain.

6. Can you provide some detail about PwC’s 2019 AI Prediction Report?

Marilyn: Sure, we surveyed more than 1,000 US business executives at companies that are already investigating or implementing AI. A full 20% said their organizations plan to implement enterprise-wide in 2019. This is not just a pilot here or there. It is deploying AI throughout the business. Our predictions report provides practical details on six key priorities (structure, workforce, trust, data, reinvention and convergence) that business leaders must make happen today in their organizations to become AI leaders of tomorrow.

7. What are the three types of accountants and how would you describe them?

Marilyn: The AI Prediction Report talks about the 3 types of Employees in an AI ready workforce - the Citizen User, the Citizen Developers, and the AI Specialists. 

  • Citizen users would be the accountants who use the AI applications. They are the core finance roles like financial analysts and accounting managers who will need to learn how to use the AI solutions to do their jobs in a different way and support good data governance practices. Citizen users will need to be adaptable as AI changes and will need to know when to reach out to get expert help when needed. They will need to be empowered to identify pain points for the business and learn to create automations that can improve their own cycle times. 
  • Citizen developers are the accountants I refer to as finance athletes who will be the AI power users. They are a smaller group of data savvy finance professionals who have strong business acumen. They can bridge IT and data specialists with the business to identify new problems to solve, identify data sets to use and work closely with data scientists to innovate, develop and deploy new AI applications.
  • And lastly, AI specialists. Some accountants may gravitate to become part of the AI specialists’ team who will be a small but crucial group of data engineers and scientists. These accountants will have strong mathematical and statistical skills and will be developing and producing the AI solutions. These types of accountants will be very valuable in the new age of AI.

8. How will AI change the accounting profession?

Maciej: AI provides the accounting profession with yet another opportunity to be known as one of the most innovative, prestigious and sought-after career paths that one can pursue. At a minimum, it will alleviate routine and burdensome workloads, allowing accounting professionals to refocus their efforts and drive even more value for the clients. And for those eager and daring enough to explore new and innovative ways of thinking, AI will provide a complementary set of resources that practitioners in the field can use to develop data-driven insights and AI-powered narratives as trusted financial advisors.

Marilyn: It's really going to help the accounting profession do more with less, be a lot more productive and take away many of the mundane activities that we did not like before. This will enable us to do more value-added activities, so I think it's a positive change for the accounting profession overall.

9. Are there any misconceptions about AI that you run into?

Marilyn: I think there is a broad misconception that robots/AI will steal our jobs. In fact, there are several respondents in our survey who are agreeing that it's going to create jobs in the short term. The roles will change and even enhance and improve the quality of jobs, but it is not anticipated to take away jobs immediately.

Maciej: One thing to add is that these newly created jobs will fall into two broad categories. The first will be roles devoted to thinking creatively about how AI can be applied and integrated into our organizations. Think of these roles as the visionaries who come up with the relevant applications and use cases within their respective industries and business functions. And the second will be roles devoted to building, maintaining, operating and regulating AI systems. Here, individuals will be responsible not only for the successful development of these AI systems but also the long-term sustainment and governance of ones that have been deployed.

10. Last question, what would you like to see done with AI?

Marilyn: That’s a good question, as the possibilities are endless. I’d first like to see more and more businesses embracing data and understanding it’s tremendous potential to not only use for automation but for innovation of new products and services. Leaders need to be ready to act in order to unlock all these hidden opportunities and do things that have never been done before.  

To learn more about AI, read PwC’s 2019 AI Predictions.