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H&R Block will use IBM’s Watson to help quiz clients about their taxes

H&R Block will use IBM’s Watson to help quiz clients about their taxes

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All those bubbles are very meaningful
All those bubbles are very meaningful
IBM / H&R Block

Artificial intelligence is slowly seeping into more and more areas of white-collar work. The latest crossover is between tax preparation firm H&R Block and IBM’s Watson, with the former using IBM’s AI chops to help quiz clients about their tax liabilities.

When a customer visits H&R Block to prepare their returns, software powered by IBM will ask questions about their year — looking for big events like selling a house or buying shares that might introduce tax-deductibles. It’s a standard part of H&R Block’s service, but the company hopes that by feeding Watson this data (along with answers provided by human tax preparers), they can improve performance across the board.

Watson will act like a central repository for tax experts’ knowledge

H&R Block’s George Gaustello told The Verge that the idea is to share expertise around the company. “We have 70,000 experts, but let’s say 500 of those are very knowledgeable about firefighters, or they know every credit deduction a farmer can get,” Gaustello tells The Verge. That information then becomes part of Watson, which offers its own suggestions during interview, “making our experts even smarter,” he says.

The implementation is basic at the moment, but early trials have been promising. Both companies see this as the start of a multi-year partnership, and claim that Watson will only get better as the system is more widely used. But while it’s true that today’s AI become smarter and more efficient the more data they have, we’ll have to wait and see if this same tech can sieve out the nuances of the US tax code.

Elsewhere, artificial intelligence is taking to white-collar work like a duck to water. After all, many sectors such as tax, insurance, and basic legal work essentially rely on processing paperwork — something that computers have become pretty good at. Late last year, for example, Watson was installed in the Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance company in Japan, where the firm said the AI’s presence would increase productivity by 30 percent. A subsequent report from The Guardian connected the use of Watson at Fukoku to the loss of 34 human jobs this coming March, though it is not clear if the expected layoffs are related. Fukoku denies that Watson was implemented to replace human workers, saying “the purpose is not reduce workforce as reported but enhance the quality of payments assessment” in a statement.

H&R Block were keen to stress that they didn’t think Watson would ever take jobs away from humans. “In no way or shape or form” would this happen, said Gaustello. “The tax code is constantly changing. So the system will have to constantly learn and be constantly trained. The [human] tax expert is always going to be front and center.”

But despite assurances like these, experts are pretty clear that the upswing in AI is going to involve job losses. In H&R Block’s case, it’s true that having a human expert is very much part of the company’s pitch (they’re reassuring during what is usually a bureaucratic and faceless process) but if Watson begins to provide the expertise that H&R Block envisions, it seems natural the company might demand less expertise from its humans. Then it could perhaps make a saving by hiring workers with fewer qualifications. Gaustello was adamant that this would never happen, but when any technology that replicates human labor is introduced, there are usually humans losing out somewhere.

Update, 8:15PM ET, February 1st, 2017: Clarification about Watson’s role at Fukoku Mutual Insurance and a statement from the company have been added.