The human factor

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on why you should never trust anybody – especially a computer – with your secrets

I once had a speechwriting job that clashed with my religious beliefs.

My boss was an evangelist for technology. But I knew the truth: computers are the Spawn of Satan (to use the technical term).

He once asked me why I thought his artificial intelligence project was creepy.

“It’s like it’s got a mind of its own,” I said.

Anyway, my job was to write speeches for him on the theme of Salvation Through Technology, but my preferred on-stage opening line was: “So! Doncha’ just hate computers?”

Fortunately, my lines got him the biggest laughs (especially at computer conferences) so our partnership thrived.

This topic came to mind when I read an article which said technology would make accountants’ lives immeasurably easier.

Instead of assembling data for you to process, the data would assemble itself, process itself, and post itself to your client’s server.

All you have to do is press the button and take the credit. And, of course, the fees. Since the data would be constantly flowing from the business to the accountant, the auditing process could be done instantly.

Client: “I want you to audit my main holding company.”

Accountant: “Okay. There. Done. Anything else?”

Downside: How do you charge by the billable hour when the entire task takes 0.75 seconds? Clearly you’ll have to throw in a few client meetings over lunch or at the golf course to make up the time.

There are other challenges, too. Deep thought: Experience tells us that whenever technology gives us something, it takes away something.

A case in point is what happened to Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. It boasted of having perfect security – since only the founder had the password.

But then he died and the other side of that coin became apparent: no one else knew how to access an account said to contain US$190 million worth of cryptocurrencies.

The computer giveth and the computer taketh away, blessed be the name of computer.

The digital account holding the cash proved impervious to tears, pleadings and entreaties from creditors, colleagues, family members and friends. Human beings can be teased or cajoled or tortured or tickled into revealing secrets; computers can’t.

That much made the international news. But the interesting thing is that the story didn’t end there, for people curious enough to want to follow it.

Two groups of people set out to solve the problem. One was a cluster of “netizens” on Reddit, a social news aggregation website, who were determined to “find the truth.” The other was an accounting firm, Ernst & Young.

After a few months, both groups came to completely different conclusions.

The web-surfers hacked text conversations of the dead man, and concluded that he wasn’t dead at all but had faked the whole thing and was living in “Hong Kong or Monaco” laughing at everyone with the missing millions.

“Er, no,” said the folk from Ernst & Young. They used good old-fashioned human financial detective work. They found that the company didn’t even have a bank account, let alone any kind of accounting system, was run from the late founder’s laptop, and the locked-away US$190 million didn’t exist.

I admit that the accountants’ version was much less movie-able than the Reddit version, but at least it had the advantage of being almost certainly true.

So, as the speeches I wrote for my technocrat friend said, in the long run we’re going to need both technology AND the human factor. “Technology makes a good servant but a terrible master.” (Those sorts of grandiose lines go down well in techno-evangelist speeches.)

Meanwhile, I note that all of the Big Four audit firms have announced that they will spend billions on artificial intelligence programs.

Okay, I get that, it has to be done, but be warned. Those things have minds of their own.

Don’t blame me if something goes wrong and the computer refuses to talk about it.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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