Artificial intelligence can’t replace human interaction

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Cedar Rapids’ Becker leads fifth-largest accounting, tax, and consulting firm in the U.S.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has attracted attention from businesses who see applications for it. But while AI can create efficiencies, there’s an important human factor that artificial intelligence can’t offer, said Brian Becker of Cedar Rapids, Managing Partner and CEO of RSM US LLP Accounting and Consulting.

That is listening to others to understand.

Becker made that and other “soft skills” the focus of an Oct. 2 speech at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. Just before the speech, Becker talked with The Gazette about those soft skills and AI.

“The pandemic changed things. There’s never been a time when people have been more lonely,” Becker said. “(In the speech) I’m going to emphasize on connecting with people on a more human level — so you can understand what people are trying to accomplish and help.

“Successful accountants are able to have conversations person-to-person to really understand where the skills are,” he said. “Professionals need to be able to communicate. A lot of people listen to respond, rather than listening to understand.”

Becker, 57, lives in Cedar Rapids and manages the Chicago-based RSM from Eastern Iowa. He said listening is a learned skill. At RSM, they are teaching how to listen and how to understand, he said.

“Our brand promise: the power of being understood is about making sure we understand what our clients want and what others within our organization want or need,” he said.

Often, people talk with others from only their own view, Becker said. Teaching them how to investigate other people’s views and really put themselves in their place — understand their viewpoints and why they might have them — “makes you a much better problem-solver and brings people together. The power of being understood is a real differentiator,” he added.

Does it sound odd for an accounting firm to teach those skills?

“It’s not just about being able to do calculations, accounting or technology — you have to be able to apply it, and the only way you can do that is by understanding,” said Becker, who’s worked for RSM since 1989.

There’s still a need for human business analysts

The use of AI in accounting is in its early stages, Becker said. It’ll be years before it’s useful. But he thinks it will eventually impact society.

“Having led technology for a long time, I know that AI won’t negatively impact the needs for accountants or people who do taxes. It doesn’t decrease the need for people, just changes the skills needed,” he said. “There will continue to be a strong need for people who can provide business analysis and who can verify numbers for businesses and their stakeholders. Technology and expertise are needed, but needed more is the ability to understand and solve problems.”

Technology can help you do the wrong thing faster, he said. “People, the process and technology have to be aligned.”

Current AI technology, Becker added, needs to be fed correct information to do a task properly. For AI to correctly do a tax return, for example, it depends on someone providing the correct deductions and other necessary information.

“That’s the danger of AI — you have to know what’s required and provide the right information,” Becker said.

For current AI, all internet information on various subjects from a certain point in time is put into its system. If someone were to ask it, “What is AI?” It could “pull from all those sources and come back with a pretty logical paragraph on what it is — and you’d be pretty impressed with the skill of the writing. The problem: it might not be right, might be pulling from sources that aren’t correct,” Becker said.

For example, if an attorney used AI information as a basis for a case but found out that some of the material wasn’t correct, the case would likely be dismissed.

“So it can definitely speed things up but you have to verify and make sure it’s accurate. It’s there to make you better as a tool but you can’t completely rely on it,” Becker said.

RSM, which employs about 170 people in Cedar Rapids, is the fifth-largest accounting, tax, and consulting firm in the U.S. The firm’s roots are in Cedar Rapids. Ira B. McGladrey founded its predecessor firm, IB McGladrey Co., in Cedar Rapids in 1926. RSM now has 17,000 employees in its 82 offices in the U.S., Canada, El Salvador and India.

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