Unless you follow me on Twitter (@SSCLAF or @CarrierMgmt), you probably missed what I viewed as one of the recent highlights of the IICF Women in Insurance Regional Forum.
There was lots of good information about leadership shared at the conference in New York, and I’ll write about all that soon. But what I chose to tweet about in one of only three messages I had time to shoot off during a break at the conference was this:
Heard at #IICFWICS: Articles written by computers. Are insurers—and journalists—prepared for changes ahead?
You can probably understand why that particular revelation from Innovation Consultant Karen Morris stuck in my mind.
It was more than the fact that Morris, a frequent contributor to Carrier Management on the topic of innovation, is one of the most interesting people I know. It was a matter of job security. Fear and distress are the human reactions that got my fingers moving on my Blackberry keyboard to share her insight in less than 140 characters. (Ironically, she spoke about fear as one of the obstacles to innovation during her talk.)
Her revelation—that she had read a sporting article and a business report, both authored by computers—reinforced something that had my head spinning a few weeks earlier at the Standard & Poor’s 30th Annual Insurance Conference.
“What’s the biggest extreme risk that executives will be worried about at the 60th annual insurance conference,” S&P Analyst Neil Stein asked a panel of experts during a session titled, “Emerging Risk: Managing Beyond the Horizon”—qualifying his question to allow for predictions in five to 10 years, if 30 was too long to imagine.
Opting to deliver near-term prophesies, a Big Four consultant offered risks like “the commoditization of insurance” and the “devaluation of iconic brands,” interspersing his remarks with references to self-driving cars that will change end-customers of insurers—to product makers and software developers from human drivers.
Next up was Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Burrows, whose long list of credentials includes work as a CIA analyst, a special assistant to a United Nation’s ambassador for the United States, and a deputy national security advisor to a U.S. Treasury Secretary, offered “the relationship between man and machine” as a looming extreme risk.
“With artificial intelligence, we’ll get to a point actually where a lot of our jobs will be taken over by machines that will be a lot smarter in dealing with them,” he said.
“You actually may be talking about an employment issue,” Burrows said.
My first reaction: C’mon man. Are we back in the 1960s? This is Rod Serling Twilight Zone kind of stuff. (For readers not old enough to remember, you can find “The Brain Center at Whipples” and other classic man vs. machine episodes on YouTube and Hulu.)
My amusement faded quickly. This is a guy who lives and breathes risk issues. According to an online bio, Dr. Burrows has expertise in emerging technologies in defense and national security, global trends, nontraditional threats, and urbanization. And what leaps into his mind as an emerging threat for insurers to worry about?
Not Google’s self-driving cars and the disappearance of personal auto insurance, but a future in which there will seemingly be little need for workers comp insurance. There won’t be many human workers, he suggests.
Fast forward to last week. The Associated Press breaks some news—about the Associated Press—in a blog item titled, “A leap forward in quarterly earnings stories” on June 30:
The Associated Press announced in an advisory to customers today that the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories for our business news report will eventually be produced using automation technology.
AP later clarified “eventually” to mean “starting in July.”
A slew of online news reports followed with titles like, “AP replaces reporters with automated system to produce company results” (emphasis added) and “AP Using Robots for Journalism.”
More jarring than Morris’s observation about two articles tossed out between some more inspiring sentiments about certain innovations being the sole province of human beings (poetry writing, for example), this news about 4,400 AP articles per quarter is a bombshell.
“What! That’s what I do for a living,” I exclaimed to a family member who shared the news that had otherwise escaped me while I buried myself in the task of hunting through insurance company news releases for fresh angles to report.
Truthfully, reporting on insurer and reinsurer earnings is just one of many things we do at Carrier Management. And we infuse those reports with more than the numbers—analyzing market trends revealed in the numbers and reporting on executive commentary our readers might miss from official press bulletins.
Our readers find value in these reports, I thought, placating myself with recent examples: an analysis of reinsurance buying strategies across the Bermuda market tied to Endurance’s first-quarter earnings announcement, our February report, “QBE 2013 Loss As Expected; U.S. Mid-Market Biz Under Microscope: CEO,” or our April tip-off, “Validus Looking to Grow in U.S. Insurance Market, CEO Says” in advance of the June deal to acquire Western World.
I hope they do. What if I’m wrong? Can a robot do my job? This was all very unsettling.
But you may not care if the byline on your AP or Carrier Management article says Roberta Robot. So why share this personal drama? What does it matter to insurers?
Machines can’t underwrite, can they? They can’t settle complex claims?
Cars can drive themselves. Robots and computers can author earnings reports and other articles that read like human prose. And a risk expert is predicting a mass unemployment problem in the not-too-distant future.
Let’s take a step back with a closer look at the AP announcement, which actually doesn’t use the word “robot.” Instead, it describes the pairing of “automation technology” from a firm called Automated Insights with data from Zacks Investment Research to generate 150-300 word earnings stories in roughly the same time that it takes AP reporters.
What’s the benefit?
Here’s what Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor said:
[AP] journalists will focus on reporting and writing stories about what the numbers mean and what gets said in earnings calls on the day of the release, identifying trends and finding exclusive stories we can publish at the time of the earnings reports.
AP’s staff breaks a lot of business news and obtains numerous exclusives throughout the year from many of the top companies in the world. We know that is what our customers want and we are going to deliver more of it through this process.
Phew. I feel much better. I think.
Now, we come to an all-important question that AP asks and answers: Will jobs be eliminated?
No. This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs.….
Rather than spending a great deal of time focusing on the release of earnings and hammering out a quick story recapping each one,… we are going to use our brains and time in more enterprising ways during earnings season.
Automation will free reporters to pursue more in-depth work, according to Ferrara.
His words have a familiar ring.
Consider these sentences:
Predictive analytics will allow us to triage claims decisions, separating fast-track claims from complex ones.
This new online underwriting tool and this rating algorithm will free our underwriters to focus on specialized risks and complex accounts.
Such ideas seemed comforting back in the 1990s when I first started quoting them. They may sound hollower now with terms like big data, text-mining and predictive modeling becoming part of our everyday conversation.
Dr. Burrows did not distinguish between manual labor and executive decision-making, or between assembly line tasks and scientific brain power when he spoke ominously about the machines invading the workforce. He just responded that insurers should be worried.
So I am left with lots of questions, but three rise to the top of the pile.
- Do you care about more than the numbers in carrier earnings reports?
- Will machine-generated summaries be enough for most readers?
- Is your job safer than mine?
Readers who have views are invited to join the conversation on Twitter at #CMPOLL1.
And those of you who write media liability and technology E&O may find opportunities in writing policies that cover risks of false earnings reports and unsourced articles typed by nonhuman hands.