No job is safe from automation

Accountants and other professionals are not necessarily better insulated against the automation revolution, as suggested by Mr Lee Fook Chiew and Mr Loke Hoe Yeong (Why robots won't steal accountants' jobs; June 24).

A large number of such positions have already been eliminated.

Just last year, American retail giant Wal-Mart slashed over 7,000 jobs in its accounting department alone, in favour of computerised back-office programmes.

Regardless of how well individuals can adapt their skill sets to remain competitive, there can be only so many higher-tier employment opportunities remaining. This inevitably results in a labour crunch and large-scale displacement.

The consultative and advisory roles that Mr Lee and Mr Loke foresee future accountants performing are not completely immune to replacement either.

In these areas of data analytics and trend prediction, nascent artificial intelligence programmes have already proven themselves to be more capable than their human counterparts.

For example, leading Wall Street institutions, such as BlackRock, have turned to computers for stock picks and asset management, due to the substantially better returns on investment that they produce compared to human fund managers.

That companies have already taken such drastic steps also indicates that they do not privilege the "human touch", nor are they as sceptical of computerised decision-making as the professional bodies would suggest.

This is on top of the fundamental advantages of a computer auditor - a properly programmed automaton is never fatigued, unlikely to make computational errors, and solidly impartial.

As AI technology continues to improve, particularly to rectify its current weakness in human interaction, it is almost certain that AI will eventually assume the most complex tasks once thought to be the impenetrable dominion of human professionals.

Our energies should be focused on rethinking economic structures and conventions that have, until now, been taken for granted, in an age when human employment is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'No job is safe from automation'. Print Edition | Subscribe