Industry Trends

Accountants and A.I. Both Need Calculators

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 

June 2, 2023

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Accountants vs. Robots

In the battle for world domination and/or destruction, the robots seem to have a lot of momentum over the humans right now. Everywhere you look, there’s another story about artificial intelligence eating our lunch. 

In the accounting world, the latest squirrel sprinting through the yard is a new study that had ChatGPT 4.0 take four certification exams—CPA, CMA, CIA, and EA. It passed them all. Quite easily, in fact:

ChatGPT averaged a score of 85.1 percent across all sections of exams and passed them all. This high performance suggests ChatGPT has sufficient performance that it likely will prove disruptive to the accounting and auditing industries.

One of the factors in this study was that ChatGPT could “use reasoning and acting (e.g., allow ChatGPT to use a calculator and other resources),” which helped it improve its performance. This seems only fair since human takers of these exams also can use “a calculator and other resources.” One of the study’s authors, Hamid Vakilzadeh, told CFO Dive:

“[A]ccess to proper tools and resources such as a calculator is important,” and a partial explanation for ChatGPT’s improved exam performance, Vakilzadeh said. “The message for human candidates [taking an accounting credentialing exam] is don’t do all the calculations in your head!”

I don’t know about you all, but I’m pretty sure I learned to love calculators whenever my math teacher said I could use them. The point being that I was more confident in my ability to get the right answer when using a tool that was better at something than I was. In this case, crunching numbers. My feelings certainly weren’t hurt that the calculator could do long division better—and way faster—than I could by hand.

But it sure seems like that’s a lot of people’s attitude towards A.I. and tools like ChatGPT. These tools are proving useful in all kinds of ways, but people are getting real defensive. You hear all these arguments that are variations of, “No robot can replace me. I’m so valuable to my clients.” But I’m unsure of who they’re saying it to exactly? 

As much as I enjoy the idea of robots showing up at work for me—particularly going to meetings—I never had the impression that A.I. would do the work, at least not any time soon. It’s just something I will use to make my work easier like a computer or email or the internet. I don’t know why accountants wouldn’t just think the same. 

One of the other authors of the study, David Wood (also quoted in CFO Dive), is trying to help people get there:   

“People predicted the end of accountants because of the computer, then because of spreadsheets, ERP systems, blockchain, etc. — it didn’t happen,” he said. “More often, you see professions change and adapt because of technology.”

Yes, yes, and “change and adapt”; another way of saying “use,” and “use” is another way of saying “exploit,” you know, “take advantage of.” So if you’re worried or feel threatened by technology, take advantage of it, exploit it, and make it do everything you don’t want to. A.I. does not care if you eat its lunch.

A.I. screw-ups

As A.I. evolves, one thing I’m sure I will enjoy reading and writing about is all the trouble people will get themselves into by using it incorrectly.

For example, a man sued an airline—Avianca—after a serving cart hit his knee. Then:

When Avianca asked a Manhattan federal judge to toss out the case, Mr. Mata’s lawyers vehemently objected, submitting a 10-page brief that cited more than half a dozen relevant court decisions. There was Martinez v. Delta Air Lines, Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines and, of course, Varghese v. China Southern Airlines, with its learned discussion of federal law and “the tolling effect of the automatic stay on a statute of limitations.”

There was just one hitch: No one — not the airline’s lawyers, not even the judge himself — could find the decisions or the quotations cited and summarized in the brief.

That was because ChatGPT had invented everything.

Now, if you’re like me, when you read this, you thought: “What young hotshot got too cute with the fancy tech and SCREWED EVERYTHING UP?” You know, “Old Man Yells at Cloud” sorta stuff. 

Fun fact: the attorney responsible, Steven A. Schwartz, has practiced law in New York for three decades, and so 1) I didn’t see that coming, if I’m being honest, unless 2): 

Mr. Schwartz said that he had never used ChatGPT, and “therefore was unaware of the possibility that its content could be false.

He had, he told Judge Castel, even asked the program to verify that the cases were real.

It had said yes.

Oof. So not only did he assume the infallibility of technology, but he also assumed the technology was incapable of dishonesty. Or maybe not dishonesty so much as not being right about being wrong. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s this sort of story that convinces me that it’s not ChatGPT’s intelligence that is so indistinguishable from humans so much as it is ChatGPT’s mistakes

I suppose that’s the real trick for us humans to master: knowing when A.I. is overconfident about how right it is. Man, things are getting weird.

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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