At a glance
When Beena Ammanath became a computer scientist in the 1990s, she had little inkling that she would one day be a global adviser, author and commentator on artificial intelligence (AI), emerging technologies and digital transformation.
In those days, she admits, not many people were studying AI.
“We didn’t really have access to quality data or computer power at all,” recalls Ammanath, the executive director of the Global Deloitte AI Institute.
Now recognised as an AI thought leader and an advocate for the ethical use of technology, Ammanath is encouraging other professionals, including accountants, to expand and future-proof their careers by becoming “AI fluent”. This could entail taking on fascinating roles such as a chief AI ethics officer or an AI product manager.
Even those who do not know, for instance, the intricacies of machine learning, or how neural networks inform deep-learning algorithms, may simply use their AI skills to complement their existing finance and accounting strengths.
As moral debates around the use of AI rage, Ammanath expects scope will emerge for AI-savvy CFOs and finance leaders to quantify the financial impact of AI ethical risks.
For example, if a business’s client-facing chatbot engages in racist or defamatory communication or goes rogue in some way, the business will be able to forecast and plan for the financial repercussions of such incidents.
“Today, finance teams don’t get actively involved in those discussions,” she says.
“But it’s time for them to raise their hands and say, ‘This is how it translates to the business impact’.”
New era, new skills
Ammanath’s career has included stints as a database engineer, general manager and AI leader at organisations such as Bank of America, GE and HP before she joined Deloitte in 2019.
The raison d'etre of the Global Deloitte AI Institute is to arm business leaders with the knowledge and resources to understand AI and how it can assist their enterprises. It is a task that Ammanath relishes. For example, she cites the ability to use AI to conduct continuous auditing through what she calls “invisible accounting”.
“We’ve always done auditing at certain times of the year in the past, but entering an era when we can do continuous auditing with the help of AI aids human accountants,” she explains.
“[It means] humans can focus more on the strategic decision-making while AI handles the ‘what if’ scenarios.” In that sense, AI will create new roles and enhance others, rather than taking over jobs as some critics have suggested.
For Ammanath, AI is all about “automating intelligence” and, to be used to greatest effect, it will require the involvement of domain and subject matter experts. If an AI product is deployed for use by accountants, it should have input from finance professionals.
“That’s the only way we can get to the full potential of AI, with humans and machines working together. AI is another tool in the human arsenal of work and accountants and finance folk need to be actively involved so they can take charge of the future of AI in accounting.”
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On course for success
AI fluency does not necessarily require taking a university course or learning how to code.
Ammanath says there is an abundance of online courses that teach basic AI literacy.
She recommends initially signing up for one that is in easy-to-understand language, while those with a real passion for technology can go on to more intensive training.
Even for businesses that upskill their employees and embrace the power and potential of AI, it is important to put guardrails in place.
The biggest criticism of AI revolves around the suggestion that algorithm-assisted decision-making can lead to it going rogue or being biased. However, it is important to realise that the guardrails are also dependent on how the technology is being applied or used.
There has been denunciation of AI-driven facial-recognition technology used by police because it is more error-prone when assessing darker skin tones and female faces.
This has rightfully raised concerns about AI targeting people along racial or gender lines, and the AI solution should be stopped to prevent any further misclassification.
However, Ammanath points out that in her home state of California, the same facial-recognition technology was being used to identify human-trafficking and kidnapping victims. But in this scenario, even when the AI is biased, the question to ask is whether there are more victims being rescued with AI than without AI and how do we keep continuously improving on bias reduction.
Ammanath acknowledges that unless we move the ethics and bias discussion beyond click-bait headlines, we will not get to the solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all answer on this complex and nuanced topic.
A detailed understanding of the AI use case and statistical analysis of such technology is required to ensure protections are in place to prevent the misuse of such powerful technology.
“The most important thing is to define the boundaries of the use case and to think of the guardrails in the context of the use case,” Ammanath says.
A question of trust
In her book, Trustworthy AI: A Business Guide for Navigating Trust and Ethics in AI, Ammanath offers a direct approach to ethics and trust in relation to AI. She also urges business leaders to shape the trajectory of trustworthy AI by establishing ethical principles for their organisations; promoting diversity and sustainability; and upskilling the workforce to be ready for the future with AI.
Ammanath’s biggest concern is that business and society will not be able to take full advantage of AI because of the fears and misunderstandings around it.
“I’m a technologist and I’m optimistic. I believe it can be a valuable tool for all humans and it can drive more equity and equality. For that, we need all humans to be part of how it is designed and shaped.”
Within the financial sector, she hopes accountants will hear this call to action.
“The days of ignoring AI are far behind us,” Ammanath says.
“You can be left behind and you can also be disrupted by it. And whether you want to embrace it or not, it’s happening.”