CPAs and AI: Adding value through ethical leadership

By Laura Friedrich
Oct 5, 2020
Photo credit: monsitj/iStock/Getty Images

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Imagine you start your workday by checking your voice messages; among them is one from your boss instructing you to perform a certain task. You complete the task and email her to confirm that you’ve received her message and finished the task. A few minutes later she replies that she doesn’t know what you are talking about – she didn’t leave a voice message and she definitely did not want you to carry out that task.

Age of AI: From narrow to strong

Amongst its many capabilities, artificial intelligence (AI) has the ability to convincingly clone individual human voices (and faces, as seen in examples of deep fakes, or synthetic, AI-generated media). Voice-mimicking software is being used not only to generate the voices for virtual assistants and chatbots, but to commit theft. In one incident, the voice of a senior executive was cloned, then used to instruct an employee to transfer money to a bank account belonging to the people behind the scam.

We are currently moving from an age of narrow AI, where AI can be programmed to operate in a pre-defined range to perform one specific task, to strong AI, which has the ability to reason, make independent decisions, and more closely mimic human intelligence. As with any disruptive technology, AI provides significant opportunities, but alongside those are challenges, among them ethical concerns including those about accountability and trust.

How AI is being used in accounting and finance today

Automation software is known for its powerful ability to streamline work, taking over rote and repetitive tasks. In accounting and finance, AI is being used to enable increasingly accurate automated transaction processing (QuickBooks, One Up), financial advising (Pefin, BMO Insights), cash flow and revenue forecasting (Intuit, Tesorio), and audit risk strategy evaluation (MindBridge). In the broader world, computer vision, natural language processing, and deep learning are being used to develop new tools and systems that will soon be mainstream.

But with these advances and opportunities come concerns about trust and accountability and ethical behaviour. If AI is operating independently of humans and in a way that is too complex for us to understand or too opaque to be explainable, should we trust the results? Or when it comes to certain AI technologies, should we even be embracing them in the first place?

Consider facial analysis technology that could be used to analyze employees’ expressions to determine whether or not they agree with a workplace policy. Or when AI systems train using data – do we know the data is accurate and representative, and is the resulting decision-making model objective or biased? And amidst this disruption, what role will CPAs play?

CPAs and AI

As CPAs, most of us have a long way to go in becoming proficient regarding AI. We have traditionally been users of technology, not familiar with the intricacies of how it is built and operates. Comprehensive knowledge of AI is challenging to obtain unless you are willing to invest significant time to examine it in-depth – time that most professionals don’t have.

But as AI becomes more pervasive in our workplaces, what will our role as CPAs be? How will we add value and stay relevant?

It’s true that as CPAs we need to enhance our technical skills to use AI effectively and oversee the risks and opportunities it presents, but we also have skills and capabilities that are a core part of our training that we can refine in the context of AI. By honing our enabling competencies, such as critical thinking and professional skepticism, we can guide the organizations we work for and the clients we work with through the ethical challenges AI presents.

Bringing value

The CPA enabling competencies, listed below, allow us to function as competent professionals in our increasingly complex environment, and can all be used to help ensure AI is being employed in an ethical manner.

Acting ethically and demonstrating professional values: Including building trust by applying professional judgement and professional skepticism in ethical decision-making.

Leading: Including strategic risk management and building consensus toward an ethics-based organizational culture.

Collaborating: Including building inclusive relationships with colleagues and sharing knowledge. Collaborating with other professionals in multidisciplinary teams will further increase the value we bring.

Managing self: Including taking initiative to build adaptability and resilience, and displaying intellectual curiosity.

Adding value: Including bringing creative approaches to the business context while encouraging sustainability.

Solving problems and making decisions: Including using analytical and integrative thought to manage change and make well-founded recommendations.

Communicating: Including communicating concerns, risks, and solutions.

In our current age of AI, we need to think more critically than ever before. While pursuing opportunities, we need to listen to, and use, our voice of caution and ensure we are comfortable with data sources and data quality. As CPAs, we are trained to question and analyze, and this can be of huge value to help organizations navigate this environment.

By serving as gatekeepers – watching for and mitigating risk, applying professional judgement, evaluating decision-making processes, and carefully scrutinizing data quality and analysis – CPAs can apply their expertise to AI to provide higher value than AI itself. In essence, we can be the humans who ensure technology is making the right call, in order to harness and enable growth.

Ethics front and centre

The CPABC Code of Professional Conduct – particularly the Fundamental Principles – serves as the source of guidance to ensure that CPAs lead in a manner consistent with our ethical obligations and the expectations of the public as we continue to drive value for organizations. When we face new and challenging situations as we are with AI and its many applications, we need to turn to the Code for ethical guidance.

As CPAs, we need to be familiar with the Code in the same way we are with our other professional standards – just as we consult the CPA Canada Handbook, we need to be able to pick up the Code and use it effectively and efficiently to guide decision-making and the organizations and clients we serve in an ethical, valuable, and forward-thinking manner.


Laura Friedrich, FCPA, FCGA, is a principal at the research, standards, and professional education consultancy firm, Friedrich & Friedrich corporation, whose clients include IFAC, global accounting bodies and other professional regulators and educators. She also serves as a technical advisor to the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants and is a presenter with CPABC’s professional development program on the topic of ethical leadership.

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