Hate taxes? H&R Block’s new AI chatbot aims to reduce your tax frustrations

Like a spoonful of mustard or mayonnaise — or perhaps you prefer sriracha? — it seems no software recipe is complete these days without a dollop of generative AI. The groundbreaking technology plays games better than you, writes songs for you … heck, it can even be your girlfriend (to each their own). And now it can help you with life’s most vexing challenge: taxes.

In mid-December, H&R Block quietly announced AI Tax Assist, a generative AI tool powered by Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI Service. The new offering leverages the tax giant’s decades of experience in tax prep and leans on its stable of more than 60,000 tax pros to answer your thorniest questions about U.S. and state tax laws: Can I deduct this new laptop? Is this a personal expense or a business one? How many roads must a man walk down, before travel is officially part of his job?

We see AI as one of the defining technologies of our time.

Sarah Bird, Responsible AI, Microsoft

In a press preview on Thursday, January 25, in New York City, H&R Block announced another new tool designed to simplify importing last year’s tax returns from the competition. And it offered TechRadar the opportunity to try out the new AI assistant software and talk about the future of tax prep.

“We see AI as one of the defining technologies of our time … but only if we do it responsibility,” explained Sarah Bird, who serves as global lead for responsible AI at Microsoft. (Bird was virtual at the event, a result of possible exposure to Covid.) Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI Service lets developers easily build generative AI experiences, using a set of prebuilt and curated models from OpenAI, Meta and beyond. Her team helps companies like H&R Block ensure that their tools use the highest quality training data, guide you with clever prompts, and so on. “It’s really a best practices implementation in terms of responsible AI,” she said.

H&R Block notes that the tech will not file or even fill out your forms; it merely answers questions. But if you’re hesitant to even ask AI for tax advice, you have good reason. The tech is notorious for hallucinations, where it simply invents the answers to questions if it can’t find the right answer. Some experts worry that problem may never be solved. “This isn’t fixable,” Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at UW's Computational Linguistics Laboratory, told the Associated Press last fall. “It’s inherent in the mismatch between the technology and the proposed use cases.”

One answer to the problem is starting with the right training data. If the AI has reliable, trustworthy sources of data to pore through, it can find the right answer, saving you from hunting through the Kafka-esque bowels of the IRS to find the instruction form for Schedule B or whatever. And off-the-shelf large language models (LLMs) simply don’t have that data, explained Aditya Thadani, VP of Artificial Intelligence Platforms for H&R Block. Ask ChatGPT 4 a question, he noted, and you risk missing out on what’s new: The cut-off date for that LLM's data sources is April of 2023.

“The IRS has released a number of changes since then,” he told attendees at the H&R Block event. “They’re making changes well into December and January, well into the tax season. We’re making sure you get all that information.”

To try out the new system, TechRadar sat down with some sample data and asked a few test prompts: Am I missing any deductions? Can I deduct a car as a business expense? And so on. The chatbot offered reasonable prompts: A few paragraphs of information culled from H&R Block’s deep catalog of data, links to find more information, and so on. The company says it can answer tax theory questions, clarify tax terms, and give guidance on specific tax rules. And crucial to the entire experience: Live, human beings — CPAs even! — are always just a click away.

“When we are not absolutely sure? Don’t guess. Give a response that we are actually confident in,” Thadani said. And if you don’t get the response you are looking for from the AI, you can get it from the tax pro.”

Privacy matters: Who will see your data?

It’s hard to discuss any emerging technology without touching on privacy, and both Microsoft and H&R Block are very aware of the risks. After all, a person’s tax returns are highly personal and confidential – one reason they became such a hot-button in the US presidential elections. Should a company be allowed to train an LLM on your data?

“We’re sitting on a lot of really personal, private information,” Thadani admitted. “As much as we want to use that to answer questions effectively, we have to continue to find the balance.” So the assistant won’t remember you. It won’t ingest your tax forms to answer the questions you pose. And by design, other people won’t benefit from your questions down the road.

The new software also taps into one of the quirks of our modern software assistants. We don’t necessarily talk to them like adults. We’ve been trained to ask Alexa or the Google Assistant halting half-words and phrases. Meanwhile, chatbots can converse in natural language. H&R Block’s tool works fine in either space, Bird explained.

“It’s incredibly enabling because it allows people to speak in words they’re comfortable with,” she said. There’s the real power of technology in a nutshell: “Make a complex thing more accessible to people because the technology meets them where they’re at.”

Now if it could only help us deduct a few holiday pounds from the waistline.

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The IRS is working on a TurboTax alternative to make filing your taxes easier

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – America’s body responsible for collecting US federal taxes – is reportedly working on a new digital tax return system that’s set to be free of charge, representing a colossal threat to the tax-prep market dominated by the likes of TurboTax.

According to The Washington Post, the proposed government tax software is expected to be available to a select few to try out in preparation for the new year when the US tax year begins, though a full rollout could be months or even years away.

Currently, US citizens will typically pay around $ 200-300 annually for the privileges of filing their taxes, with only small pockets of the population eligible for free services.

Free tax return in the US

Key to the upcoming system is the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law fewer than 12 months ago, which places a heavy emphasis on the environment, technology, and the American workforce.

Among other tax-related announcements, such as changes to home energy credits, clean vehicle credits, and changes for businesses, was a $ 15 million pot of funding to create a new, direct filing system.

A description on an IRS news page reads: “The Inflation Reduction Act changed a wide range of tax laws and provided funds to improve our services and technology to make tax filing easier for you.”

A report by the Government Acocuntability Office (GAO) indicates that 70% of US taxpayers could be eligible for free tax preparation under the Free File program, but just 3% of all taxpayers use it.

The GAO recommended that the IRS “work with relevant stakeholders to identify and develop additional options for free online filing of tax returns that would reflect current guidelines for federal digital services,” but as of April 2022 the IRS disagreed.

A year later, and several months after the funding had been revealed, and the IRS appears to have turned back on its decision by trialling a free tax filing system.

However, with the Inflation Reduction Act being a decade-long plan, the chances of seeing meaningful change in the near future are all but slim.

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IRS will soon require a selfie to file your taxes

Paying your taxes online in the US is about to get a whole lot more difficult as the IRS has revealed that taxpayers' existing credentials will no longer work beginning this summer.

Instead, the government agency is partnering with a third-party identity verification service called ID.me that requires users to submit copies of bills and other identity documents though they will also have to submit a live video feed of their faces using a mobile device.

First launched back in 2010, Virginia-based ID.me was originally created to help ecommerce sites validate the identities of customers like veterans, teachers and students who might be eligible for discounts at online retailers. Now though, the company is widely known for providing US states with online identity verification services to help them deal with unemployment fraud.

According to KrebsOnSecurity, around 27 states currently use ID.me to screen for identity thieves applying for benefits in someone else's name. Unlike other online verification services, ID.me requires applicants to submit even more documents including copies of utility bills and details about their mobile phone service in addition to scans of their driver's license or other government-issued IDs.

Getting verified

If an applicant doesn't have the documents required by ID.me or their application triggers a potential fraud flag, the company may require a recorded, live video chat with the person applying for benefits.

As Brian Krebs' credentials at the IRS will soon no longer work just like the rest of American taxpayers, he decided to create an ID.me account and found the process to be quite lengthy and tiresome. For instance, Krebs stepped away for just five minutes and had to login again as well as re-submit the documents he had previously uploaded.

After entering your email and choosing a strong password, users are then prompted to confirm their email address. Following this, ID.me then prompts users to choose a multi-factor authentication (MFA) method. Fortunately, the service supports several different MFA options including a six-digit code sent via text, a phone call to code generator apps and physical security keys that support the FIDO (Fast ID Online) security specifications.

From here, users need to upload the necessary documents and if they are accepted, ID.me will then prompt you to take a live selfie using your smartphone or your computer's webcam. The company then verifies your phone number but Krebs reported that his application got stuck at the “Confirming Your Phone” stage.

Preventing fraud is certainly something the IRS should be doing but by requiring users to submit additional documents and biometric data to a third-party company, the agency is making the process of filing your taxes more difficult for US citizens. At the same time, if ID.me falls victim to a data breach, cybercriminals will have more than enough information to commit identity theft.

We'll have to wait and see how the IRS' rollout of using ID.me to verify taxpayers identities goes but given the difficulties Krebs had getting verified, it has the potential to be a real pain for US citizens this summer.

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Via KrebsOnSecurity

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