The insurance industry seems like a natural setting for artificial intelligence to take root. Solutions providing fraud analysis against claims data has been in place for some time at many companies, enabling rapid settlements with a high degree of assurance that fraudulent claims can be spotted before checks are cut and delivered. There’s also nothing new about automated underwriting at the front end of the policy lifecycle, assuring that most routine applications are processed and priced in the most expedient manner.

Yet, it appears the industry is set to move to an even more comprehensive generation of AI, one that may transform insurance in untold ways. This is set to happen very quickly — not in some far-off future. That’s the gist of a recent Accenture study, which finds that insurance executives believe that AI will significantly transform their industry in just a few three years.

According to the report, three-quarters (75%) of insurance executives believe that AI will either significantly alter or completely transform the overall insurance industry in the next three years. Close to one-third (32%) believe that their own company will be “completely transformed” by AI within that timeframe. The report is based on the insights of a technology advisory board, interviews with industry technologists and a survey of more than 550 insurance executives across 31 countries.

So, with one-third stating their companies will be completely altered by AI, where and how is this set to happen? What will it look like? The authors state that AI will begin to shine as they begin to invest in AI to empower agents, brokers and employees to enhance the customer experience with automated personalized services, faster claims handling and individual risk-based underwriting processes.

What does not seem likely is a rise of robot-run insurance companies, with just a few human operators. The report’s authors are very careful to state that AI will “empower,” versus “replace” humans. Some industry analysts have speculated that many agents, brokers and employees will find themselves pushed aside by automated and highly interactive customer service technology. If anything, Accenture states, the rise of AI is creating new opportunities for insurance agents, brokers and employees “to deliver a better customer experience, with the technology enhancing the way sales and services are executed, facilitating faster claims processing, and enabling more-accurate, individual risk-based underwriting processes.”

Where AI will be making its mark is in the way users both inside and outside organizations interact with technology. “AI is the new UI” (user interface), they state, adding that “we are seeing the rise of the ‘intelligent insurer.’” AI is giving rise to technology that “is increasingly interactive, as touch displays, mixed reality, and natural language processing make it feel more human. Advanced technology is now capable of learning, with contextual analysis, image recognition and deep learning algorithms that make it seem to think more like us.”

Already, AI is being employed “to streamline claims, answer basic customer queries and, increasingly, to offer straightforward advice about complex products to customers in a codified and consistent manner.” The underpinning technology that makes AI possible includes automated data capture and recognition, robotic process automation and cognitive robotics.

AI is already in use in many aspects of the insurance industry. Claims adjusters are using it to simplify the triage process. Initiatives like MassMutual’s Haven Life use it to support fast, simple life insurance sales and policy writing. IBM Watson supports Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance’s call center in Japan, routing calls based on natural language processing

And Geico has a virtual assistant — “Kate” — on its mobile app. “She” understands natural language and can answer basic questions like: “What is the current balance on my auto insurance policy?” or “When is my next payment due?”

Moving to AI is not without its challenges, and the Accenture team explored these as well. The report found that insurers face challenges integrating AI into their existing technology, citing issues such as data quality, privacy and infrastructure compatibility.

A pressing challenge not addressed in the Accenture report is the availability of skilled personnel who can put AI in place and provide ongoing oversight and enhancement. The insurance sector will be competing with tech companies, universities and other segments for what is still rare and valuable talent to pursue AI initiatives, as well as related digital efforts.