It feels like everyone is talking about using ‘digital labour’ in business today, or different variations of the notion such as ‘robotics’, ‘machine learning’ or ‘cognitive automation’. There are a whole number of emerging technologies that in some ways build on each other: robotic process automation (RPA), or just robotics; machine learning, or cognitive automation; deep learning, or artificial intelligence. And the umbrella term that encompasses all of them, digital labour. All of these have potentially far-reaching applications in the audit, just as they do to other business disciplines and skills.
So, how do they all fit together in the auditing world?
The first stop for us – that is already widely in use – is RPA. Using RPA, we can analyse 100 percent of certain datasets through various audit lenses. This means that we can quickly identify the outliers that need further examination. Such further analysis brings us on to the second technology – machine learning. This enables us to take the results of the RPA analysis and, applying complex algorithms, the technology can scan information, model it against thousands of assumptions drawn from external scenarios and highlight risks and insights. We call this predictive analytics. The third step would be to apply deep learning or artificial intelligence technologies to the data, where the technology can ‘think’ for itself, learn from the results and run more scenarios and tests accordingly.
There are other crucial technologies too, that are needed to bring everything together – most notably, natural language processing or NLP. This is where a machine can ‘read’ human language and find specific pieces of information, even in unstructured formats such as contracts, emails, PDFs and other documents. NLP can be used to find and extract key data from documents, and then put it into a format that a machine-learning tool could analyse.
Then there is quantum computing too! Today’s computers are based on bits and use two digits – zeroes and ones – whereas quantum computers are based on qubits, use three digits and include a time and space dimension. Quantum computing could take auditing – and many other professions – to whole new places, but it’s too soon to know the full impacts yet.
Despite all of this, we believe that the fundamentals of an audit will not change as the need for human judgment and professional scepticism will always be necessary. The real-use case for new technologies is that they will enable us to obtain – more easily, quickly, accurately and extensively than ever before – corroborating evidence that is needed in an audit.