It beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in the 1990s. In 2011, it bested all-time winningest Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter (even if it did think Toronto was a city in the United States). Today, IBM Watson is using its cognitive computer powers in business for everything from determining which of a company’s employees and customers are likely to jump ship to identifying the best incentives to gain new customers. Doctors at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are even using it to make better and faster diagnoses by churning through millions of medical journal records and protocols to form opinions, and it’s being piloted by law firms and financial institutions to conduct research and answer client questions.
According to ibm.com, Watson is “a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes.” As it learns, it gets smarter. (I’m betting it no longer “thinks” Toronto is a U.S. city.)
So at what point will that intelligence have an impact on the accounting profession? It’s hard to say. It will never supplant accountants, but it will likely supplement us. Although it’s expected to be years down the road, the belief is that, at some point, Watson or Watson-like technologies will fulfill lower-level staff functions. This means we’ll have to rethink our training and learning programs and the apprenticeship model that’s prevalent in our profession. Many of the learning-ground activities will be automated and performed more quickly and efficiently with business intelligence technologies. These technologies will also present the opportunity to provide even greater insights, solutions, and value to our clients, and that’s exciting.
Technology does not progress on a linear curve. It’s exponential, doubling in power and sophistication every 18 months. It will be important for Plante Moran to stay on top of developments and pilots affecting our profession. It will be even more important to stay true to our people-first culture. Regardless of the technologies we use, people will always be our differentiator.
What are your thoughts on IBM Watson or similar technologies? How do you expect technology to disrupt your organization in the coming years? What plans do you have to make sure your product or service stays relevant?