The Royal Society of Arts survey last week warned that increasing automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could see 4 million UK private sector jobs replaced within a generation. They are not the only ones to make pessimistic estimates on the 'rise of the robots'.
Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, made global headlines at the start of December when he warned we're "in the midst of a technological revolution that is once again changing the nature of work". A Deloitte and University of Oxford study also warned that 95% of finance professionals were at risk of losing their jobs over the next 20 years.
Whilst some elements of manufacturing and services have faced continual disruption from technological advancement, the advent of AI and smart robotics threatens professional level jobs as never before. Yet driverless cars or Amazon's experiments with drone deliveries may be just the beginning of what computing power might replace. Many technologists and policy-makers have dubbed this period 'IR4' or 'Industry 4.0' - the Fourth Industrial Revolution.'
When ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) conducted the global 'Generation Next' survey of 19,000 students and qualified accountants under the age of 36 - the generation most vulnerable to the impacts of innovation - 84% welcomed the advent of new technologies. This was not because today's aspiring accountants underestimate the threat posed to their career paths: two thirds expected automation to replace a large number of entry-level jobs in the near future.
What those surveyed did recognise, however, was that the technology offered opportunities for new, more productive forms of work. Young professionals in shared services in particular see technology as an unprecedented opportunity to focus on much higher value-added activity (90% of respondents in the UK compared to 84% of respondents globally).
What they and other finance professionals are able to recognise (perhaps more acutely than others outside the profession) is that straightforward number-crunching has always played a low-level role in the professional accountant's skill-set.
While automation of this basic data analysis is almost inevitable even at current levels of technology, there is no obvious reason to believe that the digital revolution will be able to substitute for the strategic vision and forward-thinking counsel that accountants can bring to a business.
Even as computers and the internet have transformed the workplace in recent decades, accountants have grown increasingly important to the effective running of organisations. One reason for this is that businesses are navigating a globalised landscape where technology can destroy traditional industries and build entirely new ones in the space of only a few years, just as digital photography disrupted the growth of famous brands like Kodak and Polaroid.
In this ever-changing world, businesses appreciate the value of highly skilled accountants capable of thinking ahead and providing insightful guidance on investment, innovation and strategy, enabling firms to grow, adapt and build resilience. This is why qualified professional accountants are highly sought after for CFO positions and increasingly taking the step up to CEO. And that in turn is why so many younger accountants look towards the new machine age with ambition and optimism.
Yet the growing role of 'smart' tech means that all of us will face ever greater challenges to stay smarter than the robots. As part of ACCA's ongoing research into the future of the profession, we predict that developing digital skills will play an essential role in the future relevance of finance professionals: there is a lively discussion already underway about whether or not today's accountants should be learning to code.
Crucially, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that business is, after all, about people, is that the professional accountant of tomorrow will need to work just as hard at honing their interpersonal skills.
These range from the emotional intelligence to manage teams and communicate better with clients, through to developing the creativity and vision needed to exploit new commercial opportunities as they arise.
While we may muse on the day when robots become indistinguishable from humans, in reality robotics is a still some distance from being able to replicate processes which require complex and independent judgements. There is little purpose in competing with computers and AI when it comes to the speed of calculations or ability to process vast quantities of information.
The accountant of tomorrow will need to focus on maximising those talents and skills that even the most advanced programming finds it difficult to replicate.
No doubt the impact of robotics will create similar systems of winners and losers as we saw in previous episodes of dramatic technological revolution. Those able to recognise and spot the opportunities available for the next generation of accountants will be in pole position when it comes to thriving at the top of business.