AI's ability to process big data will shake up insurance

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Despite how easy computing has become for the end user, the insurance industry is facing more technology-related challenges than ever. As a result, the expectations around technology advancements have reached an all-time high. These challenges—and expectations--don’t have their roots in the technology itself, but in the ramifications of its use.

I admit to being a true technology geek, not by education but by interest, and was one of the first to purchase The Driver in the Driverless Car, a new book written by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever about how emerging technologies will impact our society and economy.

Wadhwa, a well-known author and syndicated columnist, is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and a Director of Research at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. Salkever, a technology editor and columnist, is vice president of marketing communications at Mozilla.

For insurers, the book’s title is a bit misleading; it doesn’t focus on autonomous vehicles or telematics; rather, it’s an overview of how the choices each of us individually and collectively make around technology will shape the future. Describing the benefits and possible dangerous consequences of breakthrough technologies, the book is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. As Wadhwa puts it, our choices will determine if our future is Star Trek or Mad Max.

I caught up with Wadhwa recently and asked him a few questions about how the insurance industry will fare in this new tech environment:

Q: Where do you see artificial intelligence’s biggest impact (as measured by an insurer’s performance) as a result of their adoption of emerging technologies?

Wadhwa: The insurance industry is going to be one of the industries most impacted by AI. If you look at the way risk computations are done, they are based on limited historic data. Now we have a billion times more data than we ever had and no human can possibly comprehend it. But AI can. So the entire process of computing risks is about to be disrupted.

And then, with the AI that will be driving our cars and the sensors that will be everywhere, we won’t need property and casualty insurance because we will know exactly who did what. This is the bad news.

The good news is that we won’t have traffic accidents, we will have AI doctors that monitor our body’s functioning 24x7 and advise us on how to maintain good health. We will have greater safety and security because we have cameras and sensors everywhere and robots that can protect us. But this comes at the cost of privacy and autonomy. And there will be a massive loss of jobs as the industry becomes decimated.

The point I am making is that there is good and bad at the same time; an amazing future and scary one. We have to prepare for this—it is happening. We have many difficult choices to make and that is the central message of my book.

Q: Insurers are, by nature, risk averse. Your book suggests a commitment to a new approach to assessing risk. What initial steps should insurers take to evaluate and analyze the complexities and speed of impact related to emerging technologies?

Wadhwa: They have to learn and adopt new technologies. If they don’t lead the disruption they will become its casualty. It starts with realizing that things are changing faster than anyone understands and this change is unstoppable and inevitable.

Q: You offer readers three questions to ask about every emerging technology: 1) Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? 2) What are its risks and rewards? And 3) Does it promote autonomy or dependence? With these questions as background, what moral responsibility does the insurance industry have in its response to the societal changes we can expect as a result of these emerging technologies?

Wadhwa: The only choice that companies have to make is whether to learn and lead or be out of business. The choices that employees need to make is what technologies we accept and where the lines should be. I mean the lines about what is acceptable and ethical. To understand this, I suggest that people read the book.

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Artificial intelligence Driverless Telematics