Digitization threatens the insurance business

THERE are more web-connected devices than people in the world. Yet while consumers and surgeons generally may welcome such developments, they pose an existential threat to some insurers. How might data-gathering devices spell doom for parts of the insurance business?

Insurance at a glance

Insurance relies on a dynamic of imperfect information. Individuals are at greater or lesser risk of all sorts of ills, from car accidents to cancer. But because those at lowest personal risk of trouble are not always aware of their good fortune, they seek insurance against trouble alongside those with greater propensities to fall seriously ill or face other hardships.  Since its creation in the 17th century, insurers have sought to amass lots of policies in each class of risk they cover.[1] They do so not only to make money, but also to be safer. This is the law of large numbers. Insurers don’t know exactly where risks lie.

Insurance relies on a dynamic of imperfect information. Individuals are at greater or lesser risk of all sorts of ills, from car accidents to cancer. But because those at lowest personal risk of trouble are not always aware of their good fortune, they seek insurance against trouble alongside those with greater propensities to fall seriously ill or face other hardships. Unlucky and lucky alike pool premiums into a collective fund, and the unused payments of the fortunate cover the costs of the unfortunate, leaving some money left over as insurer profits. But the uncertainty that underpins the need for insurance is now shrinking thanks to better insights into individual risks. The growing mountain of personal data available to individuals and, crucially, to firms is giving those with the necessary processing power the ability to distinguish between low-risk and high-risk individuals (and those in between). Thanks to technological innovation, sensors that monitor our every move are becoming cheaper, cleverer and more ubiquitous. [2]

Technology threat

Technological innovations could upend existing insurance business models, in a few ways. Two worries stand out. One is a fear that insurers will go from being companies you hope never to deal with to ones that watch your every move. The other problem is that insurers will cherry-pick the good risks, leaving some people without a safety net or to be dumped on the state. The better behaviour resulting from smart devices is another threat. Conventional risk pools (for home or car insurance, for example) are shrinking as preventable accidents decline, leaving the slow-footed giants of the industry at risk. Business is instead moving to digital-native insurers, many of which are offering low premiums to those willing to collect and share their data. Yet the biggest winners could be tech companies rather than the firms that now dominate the industry. Insurance is increasingly reliant on the use of technology to change behaviour; firms act as helicopter parents to policyholders, warning of impending harm—slow down; reduce your sugar intake; call the plumber—the better to reduce unnecessary payouts. Most tech giants are now rushing to build health platforms. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to envisage this approach extending to monitoring of homes, automobiles, and much else besides.

Insurance industry reactions

Modern technology enables insurers to gauge individual risk much more precisely. Monitoring devices provide a wealth of data, as do social media, credit-card histories and other digital records. A pilot scheme in America from Aviva, a British insurer which has since sold its American business, found that analysis of a potential customer’s less conventional data, such as online behaviour and spending habits, was as effective in identifying potential health risks as a medical examination including blood and urine tests.

In a similar vein, Michal Kosinski of Stanford University and colleagues at Cambridge University recently found that computers which are fed a person’s Facebook “likes” are better than a human analyst at predicting whether they smoke or take drugs. Liking “Big Momma” films, a series of comedies in which a detective disguises himself as a fat, flatulent grandmother, is correlated with drug use; a love of curly french fries is a strong indicator of intelligence; fans of Honda are unlikely to smoke. [3] Such prying is just the beginning: insurers speak with straight faces about a time when sensors in customers’ homes will alert plumbers to weak pipes before they burst, and glucose meters in contact lenses will keep a record of how healthily they are eating.

All of which calls into question the basic logic of the insurance industry—that it is impossible to predict who will be hit by what misfortune when, and that people should therefore pool their risks. “Cherry-picking” low-risk customers and spurning those who will prove liabilities is becoming much easier. In the process, insurers may transform themselves from distant, cheque-writing uncles into ever-present and interfering helicopter parents. The prize for the nimblest will be huge: the industry manages more than $30 trillion, nearly as much as the $36 trillion held by pension funds; last year it made $338 billion in profits. [4]

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  1. The Economist, “How technology threatens the insurance business”, Mar 16th 2015
  2. The Economist, “Risk and reward”, Mar 14th 2015
  3. Financial Times, “Insurance sector worried as insurtech start-ups cosy up to customers”, Oct 14th, 2016
  4. The Economist, “A tricky business”, Mar 14th 2015


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Student comments on Digitization threatens the insurance business

  1. Interesting post. I certainly see your point that if you can accurately predict the risk then there is no need for insurance. I would argue however the days that information becomes so accurate that insurance is unnecessary remain far in the future. Further, a major component of insurance is protection from catastrophes which are not necessarily predictable. Thus, people will continue to want to protect themselves from the financial risk of extreme weather, accidents, and other forms of personal catastrophes.

    An interesting area to consider how insurance companies will use big data in the near future is in the healthcare sector. Due to growing costs, many hospital systems and insurers are experimenting with new payment models such as captitated payment models in which an insurer provides a hospital system with a lump sum of money to provide care to a defined number of patients. Where big data comes in is in predicting how much the population of patients will cost. A major weakness in the current payment model is the difficulty in accurately risk adjusting between hospital populations. If insurers are able to more accurately risk adjust based on patient data, they will be more accurate in predicting the amount of funding needed to care for that population.

  2. wow! super interesting.
    I had no idea such correlations between films and drug use and between fries and intelligence are even studied.
    Like others who commented, I agree that the more accurate companies can predict the risk the less insurance needed.
    On the other hand, I believe insurance is not always logical. It feeds on people’s fears and behavior, which in my mind in not going to change much even when information is more accurate. I agree that the industry will have to adapt , but I don’t think people will stop fearing the worst or price it differently. Hence, I wouldn’t be so quick in burying the multi billion industry just yet.
    Thanks for sharing. great post.

  3. Amazing post Anton!! I am really interested in all of the insurance related businesses but what I want to focus this comment on is in the increasing economic power of technology companies like Apple and Google. Insurance as basically every other company or industry is increasingly reliant on the use of technology to run its business. This not only allows tech companies to manipulate company´s and human´s behavior as you point out but it also incentivizes them to become direct competitors themselves, posing some serious competitive threats to the world economy. Eventually, tech companies may be controlling every industry or segment of the economy and through technology monitor and control every aspect of our lives.

  4. Very interesting post! Although I understand your argument that if there was no risk, insurance companies wouldn’t exist, I think risk will always exist because nothing is 100% sure – however, if you are able to better predict risk, you can lower premium, while lowering cost. Currently, insurance companies are using uncleaned and low correlated information – such as giving better premiums to children that have good grades – if instead we could move to a world where insurance was covering real “accidents” and not something that could be prevented by better driving, then I think insurance companies would be better off. The real questions begs, what happens to consumers for which insurance will become “too expensive” — will the government have to subsidize property & casualty insurance?

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