Your next insurance agent will be a robot
The flip side of the tech revolution: smarter machines mean more jobs are at risk of automation. Is yours next?
by Max Taves
@maxtaves / January 28, 20164:31 AM PST
A robot just gave your insurance agent a pink slip. Blame the machine’s whisperer: Snejina Zacharia.
On Thursday, the 39-year-old took aim at the $220 billion-a-year US auto insurance industry when she launched Insurify. Technically, her Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup isn’t an insurance company. Rather it helps you sort through the maze of competing companies, their premiums and those dizzying coverage plans. Think of it like Travelocity for auto insurance.
To do it, she uses a robot — well, not literally, just really smart software. Move over Jake from State Farm and Flo of Progressive, both stars of TV commercials for the insurance business. Your replacement’s name is Evia, short for “expert virtual insurance agent.”
Snap a photo of your license plate, text it to Evia, which will ask you a few questions via text and then scour 82 different insurance carriers’ plans to find you the best plan for the money.
“No one in the industry is doing that,” according to the Bulgarian-born founder and CEO, who says the process happens in an “instant.”
In other words, Evia is just like your old insurance agent, except she’s faster, smarter and cheaper.
“(Technology is) taking us to a jobless future. Over the next 10 to 15 years, I see major parts of the economy being wiped out.”
Silicon Valley has a few technological obsessions these days. Virtual reality is one. Big data is another. But none threatens to replace people’s jobs like its investments smart machines — think computer programs that can understand human language, sort through vast stores of data, make sense of patterns and even teach themselves.
To be sure, fears of machines taking our jobs are older than the cotton gin. Nearly every major technological development in the 222 years since its debut has come with predictions of mass unemployment. They were wrong (mostly). After all, the last two centuries of technological revolutions haven’t been ones of continuously rising unemployment.
Sure, new tech has made a lot of jobs obsolete, but new careers have risen in their wakes. Cars might have made the buggy whip maker totally useless, but they also made the car mechanic necessary.
This time, though, might be different. The recent and rapid advances in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence look likely to replace, or at least radically change, careers once thought immune from automation.
“It’s taking us to a jobless future,” says Vivek Wadhwa, who oversees research in fields including robotics and artificial intelligence, at Singularity University, a think tank in Silicon Valley. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, I see major parts of the economy being wiped out.”
Accountants have seen serious incursions into their livelihoods by smart software. In 2014, 29 million people preferred to let Intuit’s TurboTax software do their taxes than a bean counter.
Driving soon enough will look very different. Investments into self-driving car technology by Google, automakers like GM and Tesla and ride-hailing giant Uber, among others, have many predicting that we won’t just be sharing the roads with driving robots. They’ll make human drivers a thing of the past.
Silicon Valley has put financial advisers on notice. Consider Wealthfront and Betterment, two among a growing number of startups already using software to invest billions of dollars.
Doctors’ jobs are at risk, too. BewellConnect, a French health tech company, has built a line of wearable fitness and health trackers designed to make sense of your body’s signals and give you a diagnosis.
Then there’s IBM’s Watson, which has been obsessed with health care. In August, IBM announced that its supercomputer had moved beyond the ability to just understand human language and could now “see” — or in this case, scan — thousands of medical images, find patterns and make sense of them. Radiologists, be warned.
Even lawyers can’t avoid the changes. Law firms have already begun using algorithms to vet electronic documents like emails for their relevance to a case.
Think creative gigs can’t be automated? Think again. Ipsy’s software picks out makeup it thinks you should be wearing. Another startup, Le Tote, chooses clothes for you. And last month, I received a pitch from Stylyze, a Seattle-based startup that says it has coded “the brain of an interior designer.”
It’s come to this: In September, the BBC put up a site in September that allows you to find out how long until your job gets taken over by a bot. Journalist ranks pretty low on the risk list, coming in at 285 out of 366 careers. Jobs like telephone sales people, typists, bookkeepers, bank or post office clerks were among the most likely to be automated out of existence, it projects.
Zacharia, CEO and founder of Insurify, isn’t all that worried by the trend, though. The former exec at Gartner, a technology research firm, says automation will make searching for the best deal on auto insurance a whole lot easier.
After a minor accident while finishing up graduate business school at MIT in 2013, Zacharia began looking for a better insurance plan after she saw her premium spike. She went online, searched sites and called a bunch of agents. She says she came away disgruntled and without an accurate apples-to-apples comparison of her options. The good part of it: she had a business plan.
“The car insurance industry is worse off than where the travel industry was 10 years ago,” she says. “The travel industry has an Expedia, a TripAdvisor and Travelocity.”
Zacharia’s company doesn’t charge consumers to search for rates. Instead, it collects a commission when they choose an insurance company’s plan. Insurify, she notes, is “not a lead-generation company” that’s incentivized to steer consumers toward one plan over another.
Insurify, she hopes, will help bring auto insurance up to speed. However, the tech she’s bringing comes with costs and benefits.
“There might be a few Jakes that lose their jobs,” she says, referring to State Farm’s khaki-clad TV pitchman. “But there will be the few (remaining) who will just do 10 times the volume they’re currently doing.”