Tax workers and robots: teammates, not enemies

As computers do more of the work, humans are unlikely to become obsolete. In fact, they may become smarter

Robot on a desk

For centuries, tax compliance work has been a handcrafted business that involves a professional manager extracting data from a company’s accounts and then submitting returns to a tax authority in a prescribed manner.

Technology, however, is challenging our entire notion of work.

It is transforming how we interact with each other, how we allocate our time and resources, and where and when we choose (or are told) to work.

No industry is safe. Even the way tax solutions are sought and dispensed is changing, forcing practitioners to adapt at high speed. The rise of new innovations offers opportunities as well as threats for tax professionals.

Richard Susskind, the UK-based co-author of The Future of the Professions, and president of the Society for Computers and Law (SCL), believes the tax world will benefit from the introduction of software capable of making sense from mayhem or disorder. He points to the US tax code, which becomes more complex — and difficult to understand, even to highly educated professionals — every year.

“Tax codes in America and elsewhere are complex webs of often barely intelligible rules,” Susskind says. “Computers are great at picking apart problems created by humans, and making sense of it all.”

Tax codes in America and elsewhere are complex webs of often barely intelligible rules. Computers are great at picking apart problems created by humans, and making sense of it all.

Richard Susskind, President of the Society for Computers and Law

The tax profession has already been forced to evolve in recent decades amid technological innovation. Individuals used to rely on accountants to help them file their annual income tax return; now, internet-based software programs let people prepare returns on their own.

“Tax software changed how personal tax services are delivered,” says Susskind. “Think of it as a ‘community of taxpayers.’ If you have a tax-related problem, you can go online and find people willing to help you.”

‘Bots’ at work

Further change is ahead. “Bots” – software applications that run repetitive tasks at super-high speeds – are moving into the tax sphere.

These little packets of hard-working code will transform the way people interact with the tax function, predicts Beerud Sheth, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Gupshup, a chat bot messaging platform for businesses.

Sheth uses the example of white-collar workers processing work-related expenses with the aid of an app on their smartphone, while standing in line at a coffee shop or airport.

Although employees tend to view their expenses as a chore, this will no longer be the case in the future, according to Sheth.

“Imagine all your employees uploading expenses as they go,” Sheth says. “You’ll be able to see clearly and in real time how money was being spent on what, where, and by whom.”

Artificial intelligence (AI), the process of machines thinking for themselves, is also expected to change the way professionals work in the tax industry.

Analysts believe that even intricate tasks will ultimately be done by machines capable of seeking solutions to complex problems.

“AI and robotics will be increasingly embedded in every organization,” says Tony Steadman, EY Americas Leader for Total Talent Supply Chain. “It will change how we work, how our clients work, and how we serve them.”

Adaptation

In many companies today, workers get to know every aspect of the firm and the industry from their first day on the job, learning how to deal with clients, run teams and manage up and down.

Technology is quickly transforming this traditional approach.

“Firms will increasingly assign lower-level tasks, then more higher-level tasks, to machines,” Steadman says. “So firms will have to adapt, creating training programs that help young workers learn how to complete more complex tasks, earlier in their careers. It is the only way to stand them in good stead as they evolve into senior staffers.”

Although some analysts and practitioners believe machines will struggle to solve highly technical tax issues for a multinational company or a high-net-worth client, with assets and property spread around the world, Susskind isn’t so sure.

“Tax planners still believe their jobs are too complex to be done by a machine,” Susskind says. “But wherever we look, however complex the challenge, there is someone creating software that is taking on tasks that we used to think required human experts. Tax work will be no exception. No one is immune.”

Adding capabilities to the biological human is the best way to empower our existing labor force and to ensure that they perform tasks better than computers.

Daniel Araya, Hult-Ashridge Research Fellow at the Global Center for Disruptive Innovation in San Francisco

Smarter humans

Many believe there is another way that technology could develop in the workplace in which people and machines communicate with one another through a shared language and skill set. It is known as augmented intelligence or intelligence amplification (IA). These are systems that can enhance human capabilities by connecting the visual cortex — the best-understood part of the brain — with a computer.

IA is still in its infancy, but its potential uses are endless. In the long term, IA could help humans process larger amounts of data and detail over a shorter time: vital for helping, say, a call center employee to locate a problem in a customer’s account.

IA will also change the finding of tax solutions: an “augmented” human hooked up to a grid could match the right guidance to the right client and situation, far faster.

Those most likely to embrace IA will be young professionals on short-term contracts, says Daniel Araya, Hult-Ashridge Research Fellow at the Global Center for Disruptive Innovation in San Francisco.

That makes sense, given that the workforce of the future is likely to be scattered around the world, with individuals paid on a piecework basis by companies and institutions.

“Most of your employees will not be sitting at a set location doing the same thing,” says EY’s Steadman. “Instead, companies will communicate via crowdsourcing or work management tools, handing out tasks to a virtual network of employees.”

IA will also likely prove the best way to keep machines from replacing humans entirely at work in the future.

 “Adding capabilities to the biological human is the best way to empower our existing labor force and to ensure that they perform tasks better than computers,” says Araya.

 

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