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WHY TECHNOLOGY IS KEY TO THE FUTURE OF AUDITING

By Piers Wilson, Head of Product Management at Huntsman Security

 

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which is responsible for corporate governance, reporting and auditing in the UK, has been consulting on the role of technology in audit processes. This highlights growing recognition for the fact that technology can assist audits, providing the ability to automate data gathering or assessment to increase quality, remove subjectivity and make the process more trustworthy and consistent. Both the Brydon review and the latest AQR thematic suggest a link between enhanced audit quality and the increasing use of technology. This goes beyond efficiency gains from process automation and relates, in part, to the larger volume of data and evidence which can be extracted from an audited entity and the sophistication of the tools available to interrogate it.

As one example, the PCAOB in the US has for a while advocated for the provision of audit evidence and reports to be timely (which implies computerisation and automation) to assure that risks are being managed, and for the extent of human interaction with evidence or source data to be reflected to ensure influence is minimised (the more that can be achieved programmatically and objectively the better).

However, technology may obscure the nature of analysis and decision making and create a barrier to fully transparent audits compared to more manual (yet labour intensive) processes. There is also a competition aspect between larger firms and smaller ones as regards access to technology:

Brydon raised concerns about the ability of challenger firms to keep pace with the Big Four firms in the deployment of innovative new technology.

The FRC consultation paper covers issues, and asks questions, in a number of areas. Examples include:

  • The use of AI and machine learning that collect or analyse evidence and due to the continual learning nature, their criteria for assessment may be difficult to establish or could change over time.
  • The data issues around greater access to networks and systems putting information at risk (e.g. under GDPR) or a reluctance for audited companies to allow audit firms to connect or install software/technologies into their live environments.
  • The nature of technology may mean it is harder for auditors to understand or establish the nature of data collection, analysis or decision making.
  • The ongoing need to train auditors on technologies that might be introduced, so they can utilise them in a way that generates trusted outputs.

Clearly these are real issues – for a process that aims to provide trustworthy, objective, transparent and repeatable outputs – any use of technology to speed up or improve the process must maintain these standards.

 

Audit technology solutions in cyber security

The cyber security realm has grown to quickly become a major area of risk and hence a focus for boards, technologists and auditors alike. The highly technical nature of threats and the adversarial nature of cybers attackers (who will actively try and find/exploit control failures) means that technology solutions that identify weaknesses and report on specific or overall vulnerabilities are becoming more entrenched in the assurance process within this discipline.

While the audit consultations and reports mentioned above cover the wider audit spectrum, similar challenges relate to cyber security as an inherently technology-focussed area of operation.

 

Benefits of speed

The gains from using technology to conduct data gathering, analysis and reporting are obvious – removing the need for human questionnaires, interviews, inspections and manual number crunching. Increasing the speed of the process has a number of benefits:

  • You can cover larger scopes or bigger samples (even avoid sampling all together)
  • You can conduct audit/assurance activities more often (weekly instead of annually)
  • You can scale your approach beyond one part of the business to encompass multiple business units or even third parties
  • You get answers more quickly – which for things that change continually (like patching status) means same day awareness rather than 3 weeks later

Benefits of flexibility

The ability to conduct audits across different sites or scopes, to specify different thresholds of risk for different domains, the ease of conducting audits at remote locations or on suppliers networks (especially during period of restricted travel) are ALL factors that can make technology a useful tool for the auditor.

 

Benefits of transparency

One part of the FRC’s perceived problem space is that of transparency, you can ask a human how they derived a result, and they can probably tell you, or at least show you the audit trail of correspondence, meeting notes or spreadsheet calculations. But can you do this with software or technology?

Certainly, the use of AI and machine learning makes this hard, the learning nature and often black box calculations are not easy to either understand, recalculate in a repeatable way or to document. The system learns, so is always changing, and hence the rationale that a decision might not always be the same.

In technologies that are geared towards delivering audit outcomes this is easier. First, if you collect and retain data, provide an easy interface to go from results to the underlying cases in the source data, it is possible to take a score/rating/risk and reveal the specifics of what led to it. Secondly, it is vital that the calculations are transparent, i.e. that the methods of calculating risks or the way results are scored is decipherable.

 

Benefits of consistency

This is one obvious gain from technology, the logic is pre-programmed in.  If you take two auditors and give them the same data sets or evidence case files they might draw different conclusions (possibly for valid reasons or due to them having different skill areas or experience), but the same algorithm operating on the same data will produce the same result every time.

Manual evidence gathering suffers a number of drawbacks – it relies on written notes, records of verbal conversations, email trails, spreadsheets, or questionnaire responses in different formats.  Retaining all this in a coherent way is difficult and going back through it even harder.

Using a consistent toolset and consistent data format means that if you need to go back to a data source from a particular network domain three months ago, you will have information that is readily available and readable.  And as stated above, if the source data and evidence is re-examined using a consistent solution, you will get the same calculations, decisions and results.

 

Benefits of systematically generated KPIs, cyber maturity measures and issues

The outputs of any audit process need to provide details of the issues found so that the specific or general cases of the failures can be investigated and resolved.  But for managers, operational teams and businesses, having a view of the KPIs for the security operations process is extremely useful.

Of course, following the “lines of defence” model, an internal or external “formal” audit might simply want the results and a level of trust in how they were calculated; however for operational management and ongoing continuous visibility, the need to derive performance statistics comes into its own.

It is worth noting that there are two dimensions to KPIs:   The assessment of the strength or configuration of a control or policy (how good is the control) and the extent or level of coverage (how widely is it enforced).

To give a view of the technical maturity of a defence you really need to combine these two factors together.  A weak control that is widely implemented or a strong control that provides only partial coverage are both causes for concern.

 

Benefits of separation of process stages

The final area where technology can help is in allowing the separation and distribution of the data gathering, analysis and reporting processes.  It is hard to take the data, evidence and meeting notes from someone else and analyse it. For one thing, is it trustworthy and reliable (in the case of third-party assurance questionnaires perhaps)? Then it is also hard to draw high-level conclusions about the analysis.

If technology allows the data gathering to be performed in a distributed way, say by local site administrators, third-party IT staff or non-expert users BUT in a trustworthy way, then the overhead of the audit process is much reduced. Instead of a team having to conduct multiple visits, interviews or data collection activities the toolset can be provided to the people nearest to the point of collection.

This allows the data analysis and interpretation to be performed centrally by the experts in a particular field or control area. So giving a non-expert user a way to collect and provide relevant and trustworthy audit evidence takes a large bite out of the resource overhead of conducting the audit, for both auditor and auditee.

It also means that a target organisation doesn’t have to manage the issue of allowing auditors to have access to networks, sites, data, accounts and systems to gather the audit evidence as this can be undertaken by existing administrators in the environment.

 

Making the right choice

Technology solutions in the audit process can clearly deliver benefits, however if they are too simplistic or aim to be too clever, they can simply move the problem of providing high levels of audit quality. A rapidly generated AI-based risk score is useful, but if it’s not possible to understand the calculation it is hard to either correct the control issues or trouble shoot the underlying process.

Where technology can assist the audit process, speed up data gathering and analysis, and streamline the generation of high- and low-level outputs it can be a boon.

Technology allows organisations to put trustworthy assurance into the hands of operations teams and managers, consultants and auditors alike to provide flexible, rapid and frequent views of control data and understanding of risk posture. If this can be done in a way that is cognisant of the risks and challenges as we have shown, then auditors and regulators such as the FRC can be satisfied.

 

Technology

USING ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TO ACHIEVE CIRCULAR ECONOMY

By Professor Terence Tse, ESCP Business School

 

It is really only a matter of time before the two main trends, artificial intelligence (AI) and circular economy, would come together. A milestone of this convergence was the white paper “Artificial intelligence and the circular economy”: AI as a tool to accelerate the transition, jointly published by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google earlier this year. It has kick-started the discussion on how AI can be used as a tool to help accelerate and scale our transition to a circular economy. This can be achieved by unlocking new opportunities through improving product and material design, enhancing circularity-based business models, and optimising circular infrastructure. The paper draws on the food and consumer electronics industries to illustrate the circular benefits driven by AI. The forecasted value that can emerge from these is encouraging: up to $127 billion and $90 billion a year in 2030, respectively.

 

The pace will be slow

No doubt these are very good news. It also shows how innovative technologies can take circular economy to the next level. Yet, I believe the path leading there will be full of challenges, not least because, contrary to what general media would like to get us to believe, the development of AI is, in reality, really slow.

 

There are several reasons attributable to this sluggish pace

First, there is a general shortage of AI-proficient graduates. Training up AI researchers takes time. Universities are not churning out data scientists fast enough to meet the job market demand. For those who are graduating, they will most likely be snapped up by the technology giants. Indeed, it has been estimated that some 60% of AI talent are in the employment of technology and financial services companies, leading to a ‘brain drain’ in academia, which in turn, slows down the production of qualified graduates. Small circular economy-based companies (as well as AI start-ups) will struggle to have the same hiring power, as they often lack the ability to match the levels of salaries and prestige offered by large organisations.

Another reason why circular economy-aimed companies, large or small, will struggle to deploy AI is that the technology remains a very expensive investment. AI is, at the moment, far from a plug-and-play technology. Arguably, there are off-the-shelf AI applications available in the market. But what this one size fits-all technology solutions can really do is often very limited and their effectiveness low. Inevitably, for AI to work at an acceptable, value-creating level, it is necessary to integrate it into the existing wider IT system. Customising AI applications to be embedded in the system architecture is very complex and hence very costly.

To make matters worse, the market is seemingly inundated with self-proclaimed AI companies. A recent report has suggested that 40 percent of start-ups in Europe that are classified as AI companies do not actually use artificial intelligence technologies in a way that is “material” to their businesses. As someone who researches and works in the business of AI, I can readily observe this phenomenon has already eroded the trust of many companies, making them increasingly cautious when proceeding with investment and deployment of AI.

 

Gradual developments, not quantum jump

For these reasons above, the adoption of AI, and by extension, in the area of circular economy, will be slow. This, however, does not mean there will be no advancement. Instead of “big bang” new business model creations, AI will most likely produce circular advantages through baby steps in operational enhancement gradually. For instance, one of the important elements in achieving circular economy is better asset management. In a recent research project for the European Defence Agency, my colleagues and I have discovered that there is a wide spectrum of operations for ministries of defence to save money and practise circular economy, from refurbishing and repurposing small military equipment items to reduce waste and minimise the use of virgin materials to extending the service years of capital assets. Unquestionably, the same may be applied to civilian activities. For example, combining the power of AI and drones can extend the longevity of major infrastructure such as reactors and bridges.

Advancements in drone technologies have allowed them to be deployed to take pictures at heights that are dangerous for inspectors to reach. The contributions of AI come from its ability to analyse and identify cracks as well as defects on assets that are not always visible to human eyes from captured images. Consequently, problems are detected before the assets become irreparable, thereby lengthening their lifetime.

A seemingly insignificant but potentially huge possibility of waste reduction would be saving on paper use. In the insurance industry, for instance, there is still a huge reliance on actual paper, with the communications between various stakeholders, including the underwriters, brokers and insured, passing on a large number of physical documents. AI techniques, in particular natural language processing, can help speed up the digitalisation of documents as they can go beyond the point of just reading and processing text to recognising and recording signatures and rubber stamp marks. Little by little, it will be possible to lower paper consumption.

 

The future is now

Both AI and circular economy are by themselves breakthrough ideas that are set to change the world dramatically. Combined, it can be a very powerful force of good. But this can only be achieved if we can synthesise them. For AI and circular economy to work together, it is necessary to educate AI developers to be more familiar with the idea of circular economy as well as making circularity practitioners and researchers more AI-savvy. Holding just half of the equation, we risk missing out on most of the intelligence. After all, no matter how smart machines can be, ultimately, it is the human intelligence – or stupidity – that determines the kind of future that we will be having.

 

Extract of “The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation”

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN PRACTICAL AI APPLICATIONS

By looking at a typical AI application, Dr John Yardley, CEO, Threads Software, discusses how AI processes must take account of humans if they are going to replace them.

 

Almost every business is influenced by human sentiment. And despite its embrace of digitisation, the finance industry is no exception. Share prices, currency movements, investment choices are driven not just by economics but by human emotion and the processes the human brain uses to make decisions.  If we are going to replace humans with machines, we must not cherry-pick the bits of human thinking that we can most easily replicate.

The perception of Artificial Intelligence has changed somewhat since Alan Turing coined the term in the 1950s. Turing said if we cannot distinguish a machine’s behaviour from that of a human, then the machine can be said to be intelligent. Nowadays, we seem to be defining AI as computer programs that emulate the human brain rather than mimic human behaviour. Neural networks, for example, are frequently touted as the pinnacle of AI, but if the neural network in your self-driving car causes you to jump a red light,  we would not describe that as intelligent – no matter how sophisticated the algorithm. If the machine is not fooling the human, not only is it not doing the intended job, it could be negatively affecting the human’s view of it.

 

John Yardley

A practical example – Automatic Speech Recognition

Let’s take the application of ASR (or automatic speech recognition, often wrongly described as voice recognition). ASR can loosely be described as getting a computer to transcribe acoustic human speech into digital text. Few would argue that this is an AI task since what we are seeking to do is replace one of two humans involved in some dialogue. If this can be done without alerting the remaining human to the fact that he/she is talking to a machine, then for sure this would meet Alan Turing’s intelligence criteria and, more important, provide potentially enormous benefit.

However, while some parts of the human process for understanding speech can be emulated using ASR, we must accept that the human listener may be using far more information that we are giving the machine. In a physical conversation, humans will be exchanging gestures, looks and body language, not to mention prior familiarity with the topic of conversation, understanding the accent, and the words being used. Presenting a machine with only a pure acoustic conversation is depriving it of a large proportion of the information available to the human. Even in a telephone conversation, humans will have significantly more knowledge than machines.

Many would be surprised just how good computers are at recognising random words and how bad humans are at articulating meaningful sentences. I have shown people ASR transcriptions of their speech and been met with incredulity. Yet when listening to the recording, the speaker is often forced to admit that the computer generally gets far more correct than he or she would give it credit for.  What the speaker and listener forget is how much interpretation they were applying to filter out the “ahs” and “ums” and “rights” and the repeated words, the hesitations, mumblings, and so on, and how much they make use of prior knowledge about each other and the topic discussed. Listeners frequently perceive words that they do not actually hear.  If the same utterances with words in random order (ie meaningless) were transcribed by human and computer, the computer would likely do better.

 

Number crunching is not the solution

The problem we have is that we cannot continually improve the understanding of speech by continually improving the recognition of words. It is like trying to get a car with flat tyres to go faster by putting in a larger engine. The engine is not the critical path and it is cheaper and more effective to pump up the tyres than improve the engine.  So too with speech. In order to behave and understand like a human, the machine needs more information, not better algorithms or more computer power to improve the word recognition.

Many banks would argue that it doesn’t matter if the customer has to repeat an account number 10 times during a telephone banking transaction because it is not costing the bank any more than saying it once.  But here again, the human factors are all-important. It is no consolation that repeating something 10 times might ultimately bring down a customer’s bank charges – eventually the customers will vote with their feet.

 

.. but adding information is.

So what is the solution? The remedy  is that AI must be applied to the problem as a whole, not just to isolated parts. Taking ASR as an example again, by using readily available information contained in email correspondence, speech recognition performance can be improved far more than by improving the ASR algorithm or running it on a bigger computer.  The emails can be used to effectively train the ASR system on the types of words that are exchanged and the subject matter being discussed. In addition, text-based messages can give valuable clues to the grammar being used – the sequences of words, the likely combinations of words, etc.  In short, the context of the discussion.  Being able to share email and voice traffic is already possible, but is not yet being widely applied, and yet could dramatically benefit both financial institutions and their customers by helping a computer better understand the context of a conversation.

Speech recognition is just one example of an AI process that often falls short on expectation. There are many more applications of AI that can be improved by taking a holistic view, not just the bits we like. AI is all about emulating humans, not number crunching. To do this, we need to understand as much as we can about the human process we wish to automate.

Looking at how the human processes information can yield benefits in many areas of IT. For example, some of the largest advances in video data compression came from an understanding of what the human eye can perceive rather than the mathematics of information theory.

In summary, AI is not about building more and more powerful neural networks, it is about convincing a human that the computer is doing as good or better a job than another human would. And to achieve this, we must tap as many information sources that the human has available – which with some lateral thinking are available to the machines too. If this information is not present then we cannot compensate by continuously improving just some parts of the process. We must either find more context or rethink the solution. Until this happens, ASR may be subject to the law of diminishing returns.

 

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