What to tell your students about AI

Try these tips and topics for discussing technology in class.
By Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest technology topics right now. Though it has been under development for several decades, its business applications have only recently become part of the mainstream conversation — and part of the accounting conversation. Organizations, including the Big 4 accounting firms, continue to invest billions in this technology for both internal and external uses.

AI will likely change the accounting profession in significant ways. Your colleagues and students are already likely discussing it. They may fear that it will lead to job losses and displacement, or they may take the position that it will not replace accountants but simply require them to evolve alongside it.          

Regardless of your views on AI, it’s a topic worth addressing in your classes. Connecting the dots between AI and the accounting profession can help students grasp its significance for their future careers.

Some educators may be reluctant to teach about AI because they feel like they lack expertise in this emerging area. Even educators who are involved in computer science, business, or other technical areas may feel like they have a lot to learn about AI processes and platforms.

But you don’t necessarily need to know everything about AI to begin talking about it with your students. There are many resources you and your students can access to gain a good general background on the topic.

Here are some tactics that have worked well for me when discussing AI with my classes:

Show students that AI is all around them. It’s important to mention that AI is not an abstract idea, or something that will only affect the profession at some future date. AI is already being used by firms such as JP Morgan, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix to automate some processes, improve efficiency, and free up human capital to focus on other areas.

Your students, and even you yourself interact with AI on a daily basis if you use Siri, Alexa, or any other voice-activated computer assistant — it’s already here!

Perhaps the most effective way to pique students’ interest is to show them how AI connects to actual market events. For example, students might not be aware that Netflix uses AI hosted on the Amazon cloud to run and improve business operations. Other examples are not hard to find: Everything from smartphones to online chatbots, Tesla cars, calendar scheduling software, and turn-by-turn GPS applications rely on some type of AI.

Do a demo. If your budget and technology policy allows it, another option might be to demonstrate some of the functionality embedded in a smart device, going beyond simple questions such as “what is the weather today?” One example would be to use a smart device to check market headlines and news updates, such as the integration CNBC has rolled out with the Amazon Echo.

Leverage existing educational materials. Many technology firms have produced instructional materials about AI. Both Amazon and Google have put together kits, courses, and experiments that can be accessed entirely online, in some cases for free. Additionally, open source courses from sources like Khan Academy, which are either free or available at low cost, make excellent supplements to coursework.

What topics to discuss

If you are just getting started discussing AI in your courses, you may wonder what to say about it. To give you some ideas, here are the concepts I’m introducing in my current courses, Intermediate Accounting I and Advanced Accounting Theory. Though, naturally, what you choose to bring up will depend on the courses you teach and your students’ familiarity with AI, this list can serve as a general guideline or a source of inspiration.

In my classes, I:

  • Establish context for AI in business situations without excessive hype.
  • Make sure students have a good working definition of what AI is.
  • Bring in examples of how AI is already being used by accounting firms.
  • Emphasize the necessity of understanding what AI options exist.
  • Discuss how to use AI to automate lower-level processes and work.
  • Discuss what to do with the larger amounts of information generated by automated systems.
  • Have students consider what type of intelligence is being replicated by specific AI tools. For instance, different types of intelligence can include visual-spatial (like a Roomba), interpersonal (think Siri), or linguistic (translation or dictation software).
  • Differentiate between AI and analytics. Analytics may transition into AI, but they are not the same thing, and illustrating that distinction is critical. The core difference between analytics and AI is that analytics can include everything from Excel functions to advanced enterprise resource planning systems, whereas AI is a specific application or suite of programs that can — and already is — replace humans in certain situations.
  • Talk about how data makes AI possible. A key point I emphasize is the difference between structured data, such as ZIP codes and phone numbers, which are standardized and easily searchable, and unstructured data, such as text messages and social media postings, which are not. Though it may seem like an obvious point, even the best AI tool or platform would be useless without clean data. Different data formats, be they PDF, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Prezi, Slack messages, or emails, need to be standardized and formatted in a consistent manner to be used effectively by any AI tool. I talk to students about the importance of codifying and standardizing information, and making sure that different systems can communicate. These are all key concepts that, while not as buzzworthy as AI, are what make AI applications possible.

AI represents a dramatic change in the business landscape, and it’s something I’d encourage accounting educators to integrate into their curriculum. Even if you and your institution are not experts in computer science or programming, that does not have to hold you back. Start small, build the conversation, and leverage existing resources, so you can make AI a part of your courses moving forward.

Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA, is an assistant professor at Lehman College in New York City. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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