The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the blockchain, says ANTON VAN HEERDEN, MD and Executive Vice-President, Africa & Middle East at Sage.
If you think that tech is done with transforming the way accountants work (and every sector for that matter), you’re in for a surprise. As an accountant by qualification, I see a very bright and exciting future.
The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things and the blockchain. Yes, recently these technologies have been spoken about at a large scale, but the job of an accountant will change as much as the first computerised accounting packages did or the arrival of mobile and cloud computing.
Invisible accounting will be built on the back of these three powerful emerging technologies, as illustrated in Leading the Invisible Accounting Revolution, a new whitepaper from Sage and Ovum.
The exciting news is that these technologies will allow for us to focus on the things we care about most, such as working with clients or the business’s leadership on strategic financial plans. What each of these technologies will do is free us from more routine admin work, while ensuring that we can work more accurately and efficiently. They will also give us more real-time visibility into our financial performance.
Smart assistance on the go
We’re all becoming rather used to speaking to machines, for example, asking Siri on our iPhones for directions or Bixby on the new Samsung devices to seek out an answer to a trivia question. The interfaces to technology are becoming more natural and conversational as we use voice, gesture or touch to interact with computers rather than a mouse and keyboard.
In the background, AI technology crunches massive datasets to help us complete our personal tasks or our work. This technology doesn’t simply follow a set of programmed rules; it can also learn from our responses and its databases to improve its functionality and its usefulness over time. For now, consumers are the biggest users of such technology, but it is rapidly moving into the business world, too.
At Sage, we recently launched our conversational bot Pegg, which works with collaboration tools like Skype, Facebook Messenger and Slack. Rather than needing to navigate a bunch of fields on your accounting software, you can simply ask Pegg questions such as: “How much money did we make this month?” or “Does anyone owe me money?”
Imagine how useful that might be if one of your customers phone you for an invoice when you’re out-and-about, and you don’t have easy access to your computer. You can also note expenses, so you don’t forget to file the receipt for your parking when you’re out on a business visit. This sort of technology is going to rapidly evolve so that you will be able to ask your virtual accounting assistant a wide range of business questions, without needing to dive into tables and fields in an accounting package to get an answer.
As an accountant, I’m always excited to find a technology or process that reduces the ‘friction’ of administration. By friction, I mean the time and effort it takes to record transactions or complete tasks.
The Internet of Things – the many smart and connected devices in the workplace – will do a great deal to reduce friction. It can give us real-time information about assets and transactions so that we don’t need to record it after the fact. For example, a telematics device or GPS in a company car could automatically capture mileage information and upload it to the accounting solution, so drivers don’t need to report it in with their logbooks. Or we can track items as they move through the supply chain for an up-to-the-second view of sales and inventory on hand.
Blockchain with a touch of human
Further into the future, the blockchain has some exciting potential for accountants. The blockchain is a type of distributed ledger or decentralised database that keeps records of digital transactions. All participants have an identical copy of the transaction that can be accessed and viewed in the present, and all parties need to verify the authenticity of a set of transactions (a block) before a new block can be added to the existing chain.
Blockchain records cannot be altered, and every transaction is recorded and verified. As such, blockchain brings new levels of trust and transparency to transactions. When we bring blockchain and smart contacts together, we can automate many processes where we have used an independent third party (like an exchange, lawyer or clearing house) to verify transactions.
In future, companies big and small could use blockchain for invoicing, documentation, contracts, and payment processing, all done with high levels of automation and low levels of friction. We’ll spend less time on ledger entry and reconciliation in the book-keeping process. However, there will still be a need for a human touch as accountants and auditors need to ensure that local tax and other regulations are applied.
Going beyond cloud computing, which is now a given starting point for many organisations, the use of AI and other innovations will lead to Sage’s vision of invisible accounting by 2020. It is a seamless and automated accounting process that will enable us to think about business growth and strategy rather than recording invoices and doing bank recons.
Which IoT horse should you back?
The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.
But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.
Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).
Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:
SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.
It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.
LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.
Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.
Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.
It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.
LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.
It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.
Key features include:
· Voice functionality via VoLTE
· Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over
· Low power consumption
· Extended in‑building range
Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.
NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.
The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:
1. Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations
2. The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies
3. A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again
So, which horse should you back?
I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.
The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.
So: do your homework. And good luck!
Ms Office hack attacks up 4X
Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.
Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.
The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.
The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.
After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.
For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.
“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.
Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:
- Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
- 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
- Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
- Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
- Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
- 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
- 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).
To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:
- Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
- Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.
· Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.
- Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.