I’ve long had the view that accounting is about words as well as numbers. That’s why I keep writing about the need for accountants to be better at writing and presenting.
The large language model (LLM) kind of AI that has been all the rage in the last six months can write better documents than many accountants. Better in terms of language and grammar. Much, much worse in terms of content.
ChatGPT and the like can’t do what accountants can.
This has been my intuition for a while but last week I heard a podcast that firmed up my opinion.
Emily M Bender, professor of computational linguistics at the University of Washington, (LinkedIn) was the guest on a special edition of the BBC’s Word of Mouth radio show. She explained in a very clear way how LLMs work — that they are very sophisticated machines for predicting what the next word in a piece of text could be.
I highly recommend you listen to the radio programme if you are interested to understand what LLMs can do, and what they can’t do. The link is in the comments.
Somehow, we’ve gone from the time when people are complaining about predictive text because they sent an offensive word to their mum to a situation where people are looking to “write” 2,000 word documents with it.
But, we need to recognise that the synthetic text that ChatGPT and other machines create, is plausible but not necessarily correct. And always remember that these machines do not have any insight.
If I stick just to the world of finance I could ask ChatGPT to write for me an internal audit report about a payroll system. In fact, that is exactly what I did this morning. The results are in this PDF. It looks like a payroll audit report but there was no testing, no evidence no findings and no management was asked to give a response.
I am not complacent about AI. I can imagine the makers of financial information systems building LLMs into their report writing functions. This might mean that the reports the machine creates combine the organisation’s real financial data with the predictive text.
Even at that point, there is a role for accountants. Accountants understand the business and its environment. This means the accountants can interpret what the report means for the business. Perhaps, at some future date, engineers will build apps that can know everything about a business, its customers and competitors, and then, maybe, accountants won’t be needed.
For now, I feel safe.