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INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY | Contributed Content, Singapore
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Joseph Alfred

AI and machine learning: embracing new frontiers

BY JOSEPH ALFRED

There is currently a lot of hype about AI and machine learning – perhaps echoing the hype about technology and machines in the past. The finance profession in Singapore today needs to know what it is dealing with as the terminology can mean different things to different people.

Machine learning, or ML, is part of this umbrella of jargon used when there is a reference to AI. ML involves the machine, over time, being able to learn the characteristics of data sets and understand the characteristics of individual data points. It ‘learns’ in the sense that the outcomes are not explicitly programmed in advance. The way the algorithm treats data can dynamically evolve over time based on its being exposed to new previously unseen data.

Our recent report, entitled ‘Machine learning: more science than fiction’, aimed to cut through the hype, and to understand what our members think about the future of the profession. We conducted a survey on close to 2,000 ACCA members across 111 countries, and below are some findings:

  • Globally, a third of accountants currently see AI as all or mostly hype, whilst nearly 60% say that in three years’ time it will become a reality. In Singapore, 63% of respondents agree to the latter statement and this suggests that there is an opportunity for machine learning’s entrance into the accountancy mainstream.
  • Machine learning is becoming more relevant for many organisations in Singapore, with 27% already having initial discussions or exploring its concepts – and this is in comparison to 24% globally.
  • For tech terms such as ML, AI, robotic process automation, data analytics, and natural language processing, members were asked if they understood or have heard of them before. On average for any given term, 62% of respondents had not heard of it, or had heard the term but did not know what it was or had only a basic understanding.

Findings above suggest that there is immense potential for greater education and awareness building among the accountancy community.

Technology raises questions about public interest and ethics. Decisions made by algorithm are already commonplace – They can decide what articles we read online, what routes to take on a smartphone map, the music we listen to, and even allegedly how we vote. Technology nudges us to make decisions.

But disclosure and the level of transparency of these decisions can have implications for the wider public interest. How do we know when that is the case? Can we trust the data?

So in our survey, we also asked participants about disclosure, if they think that organisations should highlight when a decision has been made by a machine learning algorithm. Most respondents noted that it should be disclosed, though there were some nuances, for instance subject to regulatory considerations. Only one per cent said that they will not disclose that piece of information.

For professional accountants, the fundamental principles established by International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA) provide guidance when ethical questions are concerned. These principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour - must be interpreted for the situation at hand – something essential when dealing with new technologies and previously unseen scenarios.

In this digital age, these ethical principles are needed more than ever. This is a transformational time for the profession, and for finance directors it is about getting the balance right, of ensuring people interact with technology in ways that create trust rather than destroy it.

In the early 1900s, there was a sense of hype, of fear about developments ahead and that change was somehow scary. Today, we are no less immune from hype. Things are moving fast and as we conclude in our report, the time to start building greater knowledge and awareness in this area is now.

Technology has moved beyond unrealistic fantasy to real business applications. Some will embrace it; others will fear it. But only the reckless will avoid finding out more about it. Yet again, this is the time for the profession to lead the way and connect technology with human insights, offering guidance and the wise counsel for which the profession has become so valued. 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Joseph Alfred

Joseph Alfred

Joseph Alfred is the Head of Policy and Technical of ACCA – the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Singapore.

In this role, he is responsible for the formulation of policies as well as development and implementation of Professional Insights initiatives to drive ACCA’s public value mission and brand objectives, ensuring that ACCA members, regulators and other stakeholders are updated on ACCA’s global technical policies.

He also works closely with stakeholders and organisations to identify opportunities where ACCA can contribute to the agenda in relation to accounting and business in Singapore and in ASEAN.

Joseph has been with ACCA since 2004. He is currently a Fellow member of ACCA, Fellow Chartered Accountant of Singapore. He holds an MBA from the University of Strathclyde.

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