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HP rolls out AI-powered ‘virtual agent’ to solve customer queries



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HP has started offering customers a “virtual agent” service on its customer support site. The agent can handle common queries without human intervention, letting customers get help after the support teams go home.

While a customer service chatbot is not the newest of ideas, the HP agent learns “independently” whenever it completes a new chat with a user. This allows it to add it to its “core knowledge” of 50,000 pages of HP product information. As more users engage with the bot, it can construct additional help and guidance to answer future queries with more precision.

Wait. What’s a chatbot? 

A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users. They are often powered by machine learning or AI. Chatbots can be deployed over text message, as pop-ups on websites or via messaging apps, like Facebook or WhatsApp.

The chatbot market is expected to grow in value from $703 million in 2016 to $3,172 million by 2021, according to MarketsandMarkets. New research from Juniper expects chatbots to be responsible for over $8 billion a year in cost savings for organizations by 2022.

HP Bot Is Friendly

HP’s friendly and conversational bot is meant to provide customers with a faster self-service alternative to waiting for a human support employee to become available. The agent appears at the bottom-right of HP support webpages, using a similar presentation to the live chat popups on many other websites.

The digital agent is capable of automatically detecting spelling mistakes and interpreting the intended meaning. It parses the customer’s query to understand what they’re asking, before searching for the answer in its catalogue of support documents. If it’s unable to resolve the problem, it’ll automatically hand over to a human operator.

HP Vice President and head of global support centres LaChelle Porter-Ainer explained in a statement said the translation and spellcheck capabilities are the most important in letting the bot help a broad range of customers. In one chat, the agent automatically converted the phrase “noat book” in a customer query into “notebook.”

“A customer can actually communicate in their own words and the virtual agent can translate to find the intention of that customer’s question – and get that customer a response,” Porter-Ainer said. “In other words, you just type as you would normally talk.”

Increasing efficiency

HP said the agent’s already cutting down customer waiting times, however, it has not released details of those efficiencies. With the bot able to takeover handling of basic queries, staff will be freed up to focus on more complex issues.

The virtual agent is built with Microsoft-developed AI technology that was first piloted on the company’s campus. When Porter-Ainer visited Microsoft, the bot’s engineers approached her about deploying it to HP’s support centres. Although the bot’s still technically in an investigative phase, Porter-Ainer said it’s already meeting its design requirements.

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The Global Artificial Intelligence Talent Report: 2018





Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI
Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI
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The demand for AI experts has grown exponentially over the last few years. As companies increasingly adopt AI solutions for their businesses, the need for highly experienced, PhD-educated, and technically-adept talent shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.


This guest post was contributed by Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI and originally appeared on his site here. For further commentary beyond the report, see the accompanying blog post.
For a table of the full list of countries and their numbers, or to submit information about the talent pool in your region, send a message using the contact form.

This report summarizes our research into the scope and breadth of the worldwide AI talent pool. Although these data visualizations map the distribution of worldwide talent at the start of 2018, we want to acknowledge that this is a predominantly Western-centric model of AI expertise.

We are submitting our work amidst similar, though much broader, reports such as Tencent’s recent “2017 Global AI Talent White Paper,” which focused primarily on China in comparison to the United States. Tencent’s research found that currently “200,000 of the 300,000 active researchers and practitioners” are already employed in the industry, while some 100,000 are researching or studying in academia. Their number far exceeds the high-end of our measure at 22,000, primarily because it includes the entire technical teams and not just the specially-trained experts. Our report, however, focuses on finding out where the relatively small number of “AI experts” currently reside around the world.

We drew on two popular data sources for this line of inquiry. First, we used the results from several LinkedIn searches, which showed us the total number of profiles according to our own specialized parameters. Second, for an even more advanced subset, we captured the names of leading AI conference presenters who we consider to be influential experts in their respective fields of AI. Finally, we relied on other reports and anecdotes from the global community to put our numbers in greater context and see how the picture may develop in the near future.

Even though we relied primarily on English-language data sources, our view of the talent pool provides a good global representation of the best experts that the field currently has to offer. For this reason, the second half of the report focuses on a qualitative assessment of talent and funding in Asia and Africa, where the reliability of our numbers drops off significantly and does not match the industry or academic output of these hotspots.

According to our broadest LinkedIn measures, we have found that there are roughly 22,000 PhD-educated researchers in the entire world who are capable of working in AI research and applications, with only 3,074 candidates currently looking for work. In the smaller, more advanced subset, we have found that there are currently 5,400 AI experts in the world who are publishing and presenting at leading AI conferences across the globe and who are well-versed enough in the technology to work with teams taking to take it from research to application.

How We Defined “Talent”

Building transformative AI applications for enterprises requires teams of people who have proven technical competency in Machine Learning/Deep Learning, several years of work experience, and can collaborate and thrive in an interdisciplinary environment.

The critical shortage of “talent” in the current AI job market suggests that there are currently not enough people with the strong grasp of academic research and applied software development required to mediate the worlds of business, science, and engineering.

The teams that need to be filled should be able to identify a problem that can be solved with modern machine learning techniques, build and implement that solution from scratch, and then optimizing the solution to work efficiently.

In our search, our hypothetical expert must be either highly talented or very experienced in order to capture the most elite leaders, seniors, and top juniors who would be able to work on such an effort. We used two different approaches to accurately size the pool of people in the world: LinkedIn searches and identifying participants in academic conferences.


Using LinkedIn, we broke down these search criteria to capture a broad view of what it means to be an AI specialist.

These search parameters were built to find candidates who were awarded a PhD no later than 2015, to account for several years of work experience.

Although a PhD is not technically required to be considered an AI expert (since experience applying AI solutions in a real-world setting is more important than a degree), we’ve nonetheless found that having a PhD is a good proxy for assessing the technical ability of the talent pool across different nations.To qualify for this subset, these profiles must also have mentioned “AI” or Artificial Intelligence in addition to one or more advanced concepts, such as deep learning, artificial neural networks, machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, or robotics. These candidates must also be technically adept: we filtered our numbers to include only people who have a solid grasp of either Python, Tensorflow, or Theano, to make sure they have some experience developing real-world applications. Using these very broad parameters, we identified a total of 22,064 experts.

We also ran a more advanced subset that did not include the (“AI” OR “Artificial Intelligence”) qualifier, omitted “python”, and included more specific AI-only frameworks.

The idea behind this search was to capture candidates who listed very specific frameworks that we typically employ in our own work (these include torch, caffe, and nltk) and omit candidates who are using “AI” as a buzzword. In this search, we identified a number that comes very close to that of our conference presenter numbers: we found 6,138 experts using this search, with 1,735 indicating that they are available for work.For our visualization, we decided to plot the less conservative estimate, in order to capture talent with potentially interdisciplinary skills.

Academic Conferences

In addition to these narrower LinkedIn searches, we counted authors of published papers or posters to estimate other high-level influencers and “rising stars” in the field. In theory, In theory, these candidates are required to apply AI theories established in controlled environments to messier real-world settings. In this talent pool, we found 5,400 experts who have presented a research paper in the last few years.

The following conferences were prioritized in our research: the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS), the International Machine Learning Society (ICML) conference, and finally the International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR). We scraped researcher names from these conferences and filled out their location, experience, and education profiles using Mechanical Turk.

Dataset Biases

According to our data, European and Asian countries have significantly fewer researchers than the US, the UK, or Canada, but we are the first to acknowledge that this is most likely due to LinkedIn being a predominantly Western platform. Our searches found 413 candidates in China, 291 in Singapore, 204 in Japan, and 147 in Korea.

recent tabulation of LinkedIn users by country done by Meenakshi Chaudhary points out a large discrepancy in LinkedIn user penetration rates, even among developed countries. Chaudhary mentions that “after [the] US, India, Brazil, Great Britain, and Canada have the highest number of LinkedIn users,” which suggests that LinkedIn’s adoption in certain countries and markets heavily skews the representations within our sample. To that effect, while the quantities of LinkedIn experts found in Asia are much lower than in North America or Europe, these numbers are still very high given the fact that LinkedIn’s penetration rates are lower in Asia.

The same goes for the careful examination of presentations at academic conferences. By limiting our search to several English-speaking conferences in the Western world, we risk missing other institutions where AI research and development is done: research centres, private labs, think tanks, smaller universities and institutes, independent researchers and consultants. These people, although experts and domain-leaders, might not be engaging with the global community when they are working at a smaller scale or privately.

AI Talent Hotspots Across the Globe

North America

Out of our 22,000 LinkedIn profiles, almost half of all candidates (9,010) are living and working in the United States. Most of the LinkedIn experts listed their field of study as either Computer Science (12,856) or Computer Engineering (3,879) –– less common fields of study included Mathematics (2,592), Physics (2,157), and IT (1,175). A substantial portion of these experts have worked, at some point, for either Google (756), Microsoft (357), or IBM (265), and have anywhere between three and 10 years of experience working.

The dominance of the U.S. in the AI talent markets is not at all surprising. Paysa, in a recent studyof artificial intelligence talent, found that nearly $650 million is slated to be spent in the United States on annual AI-related salaries alone, with several U.S. companies, having raised an additional $1 billion to fund AI development, making it hard for smaller countries to compete with the U.S.

Nonetheless, Canada came in third place for the number of researchers in our LinkedIn and conference presenter searches, making it a viable competitor to the U.S., with 1,154 high-level profiles, which is high given Canada’s small population and GDP. The Canadian AI talent pool has been refilling with former students and new international researchers alike, with Montreal leading the charge (Facebook, Google, Uber, Samsung, DeepMind have all set up labs there, among others) and Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver close in tow.


The United Kingdom was the runner-up to the U.S. with a total of 1,861 high-profile candidates. Industry has been a big player in the UK, which has led to significant brain drain: as Ian Sample at The Guardian has recently pointed out, AI professors have been leaving for the industry primarily because demand for talent has been “heavily outstripping supply.”

Germany, on the other hand, has had the opposite problem. As Yasser Jadidi, head of AI research at the Bosch Center for Artificial Intelligence pointed out to The Financial Times, Germany has a strong presence of “young professionals and academics” which has remained “sort of hidden.”  With a strong academic presence of 276 conference presenters, Germany has been thinking of ways to commercialize AI expertise for business. Emerging tech hubs such as Cyber Valley in Southern Germany, are looking to give a shared space to industry and academia.

Other European countries also had significant numbers of experts: France had 797 eligible LinkedIn profiles, while Spain came up with 606 profiles. Overall, it is fairly clear that in recent years, Europe has steadily become a competitive location for finding AI talent.


The North American and European AI dominance that we have covered so far does not, however, paint the full picture of global talent. Asia has been vastly underrepresented in our LinkedIn and conference presentation data, primarily due to our Anglo-centric approach. Despite the fact that our searches turned up lower numbers in Asia, paper publications and funding show a different story.

Below, we have summarized the incredible growth that China, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are exhibiting in their respective markets. We will also cover the reasons why the West-East divide in the talent markets is so prominent and has been so hard to bridge.

In general, we have found that the Asian countries are much more focused on developing applications of AI technology rather than investing into academic research.


China’s AI market growth has been staggering. The United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission has recently stated, in its 2017 Annual Report, that “local [Chinese] governments have pledged more than $7 billion in AI funding, and cities like Shenzhen are providing $1 million for AI startups. By comparison, the U.S. federal government invested $1.1 billion in unclassified AI research in 2015 largely through competitive grants.”

According to this report, Chinese tech companies Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have become “global leaders in AI,” a trend that is reinforced by the Chinese government making AI a national priority. Just last July, CNN reported that China’s State Council is planning to build an AI industry worth $150 billion in the next few years.

Despite these big leaps in funding, the West has been largely unaware of the work going on in China. As Andrew Ng pointed out in an interview for The Atlantic, “China has a fairly deep awareness of what’s happening in the English-speaking world, but the opposite is not true.” While Chinese researchers speak English and have access to the Western-world of research, the English-speaking community is cut off from Chinese research due to the language barrier.

As a result, China has been able to make big leaps in academia below the radar of the West. While our LinkedIn searches only picked up 413 profiles, 206 of which are also conference presenters, China has recently jumped ahead of the U.S. in artificial intelligence paper publications according to an AI report done by the Obama Whitehouse in late 2016. Traditionally seen as a reliable marker of research activity, published papers are a good indicator of talent growth in the region, although the influence and quality of these papers is contested by some.

In a well-sourced report at The Aleph, Alex Barrera points to the rising quality of education as one of the big reasons that China now has two universities, Peking and Tsinghua, that have recently been categorized among the top 30 universities in the world by the Times Higher Education rankings. Barrera sees the potential for this trend to continue: “While institutions like Stanford still hold onto their perch of the global ranking, universities like Peking University, are closing in. Stanford outranks them in specific scores but lags in others like technology transfer.”

While AI education in China has been growing rapidly, serious AI faculty are still hard to find. Many AI practitioners in China have transitioned from a field like Electrical Engineering or another branch of Computer Science. In short, while the growth of the Chinese talent pool shows no intention of stopping anytime soon, the country still needs some time to build up a rigorous market that rivals that of the United States.


Recent reports have also emphasized the extent to which Singapore is quickly becoming an artificial intelligence research hub. According to a 2017 report from Channel News Asia, The National Research Foundation will be investing $110 million USD into “a new national programme aimed at boosting Singapore’s artificial intelligence capabilities over the next five years.”

Our own data has identified at least 291 highly-qualified AI profiles in the country, along with 21 high-level experts who are publishing papers in leading conferences. Michael James Milne, director at Kaishi Partners, estimated in correspondence that there are more likely to be around 1,500 qualified AI experts currently in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

These numbers are supported by the growing number of research centres that are starting to take hold in the small, cosmopolitan city-state. Joel Ko, of Marvelstone Ventures, recently confirmed to the South China Morning Post that Marvelstone plans to set up an AI hub “which would incubate 100 startups every year.”

The increasing government and private funding means only one thing: Singapore AI is bound to grow significantly over the next few years as these changes pull in more talent.

South Korea

After Google’s DeepMind program “AlphaGo” defeated South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol in 2016, the South Korean government announced that it would invest $863 million USD in AI research over the next five years.

Since then, Korean news reports, which were graciously translated translated and shared with us by Rufina K. Park, have documented the Korean government’s heavy investments in AI infrastructure. On December 22, 2017, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced “The Plan for Innovation Growth” whereby the government committed to spend 1.56 trillion won (approx. 1.53 billion USD) on AI and related sectors that will prepare Korea for the “fourth industrial revolution” in 2018. Similarly, the Council for Intelligent Knowledge Society aims to spend 244 billion won (approx. 22.6 million USD) on AI in 2018. In total, 7.96 Trillion Won will be spent on the 13 Innovation Growth areas from 2018-2022. Korea’s current plan is to create 550,000 new jobs in the innovative sectors by 2025.

This funding has come in addition to two existing AI research projects, says Mark Zastrow at Nature, noting two specific undertakings that are currently in progress: “Exobrain, which is intended to compete with IBM’s Watson computer, and Deep View, a computer vision project.” Korea has pulled ahead as an industry leader in the area, taking third place in the number of AI patents in 2017.

In our own data, we found a sizeable subset of 147 AI experts currently working in South Korea with 21 recent conference presenters hailing from that area. While having a strong industry presence in AI, it is clear that academic research in Korea, ranked 7th in number of AI dissertations, is not yet quite as strong as in China or Japan.


Unlike China, Japan has a long history of robotics and artificial intelligence research which has largely gone undiscussed in the media. Part of the problem, as some outlets have noted, is Japan’s notorious industry-level insularity, which results from a stiff “language barrier and rigid business practices.” Japan’s academic AI footprint, however, is notably stronger than either South Korea or Singapore, since Japan has roughly 117 active researchers presenting at NIPS and other leading conferences.

Artificial intelligence academics have noted the difficulty of keeping up with other Asian countries: Mitsuru Ishizuka, professor emeritus in AI at the University of Tokyo, noted that Japanese research has fallen behind the work “that is being done in China.” While Japan’s talent footprint is significant, it is clear that their ratios are skewed towards academia: 117 conference presenters versus 204 LinkedIn profiles, significantly lower than China, Singapore, and South Korea. Anita Pan, the Second Secretary and Trade Commissioner of Canada to Japan, pointed out in an email that Japan’s AI talent shortages are well known: “of the 15,659 students enrolled in graduate studies in advanced information technologies, 619 are specifically related to AI, and of those, 123 are expected to complete doctoral degrees.”

Last August, however, the Japanese government announced that it is “planning to invest billions of yen to fund next-generation semiconductors and other technologies critical to AI development.” Pan expects that the funding for the fiscal 2018 will most likely double 2017’s allocation of 51.7 billion yen ($575 million CAD), resulting in a funding package that exceeds 100 billion yen ($1.1 billion CAD). Such advances in funding could spur an industry which has the history and research power to harness home-grown talent. These pecuniary advances have already netted some results: just this August, deep learning startup Preferred Networks Inc. raised $95 million USD from Toyota to work on self-driving technology.


Although not as prolific as either the East or the West, African countries have recently been been growing significantly in AI research and development.

Jacques Ludik, the President of the Machine Intelligence Institute of Africa (MIIA), estimates that there are roughly 1,500 members in his association, 70% of whom can be classified as experts in their respective fields. Ludik pointed out that funding is difficult to come by, but the continent has nonetheless been able to implement AI applications in agriculture and the mobile space.

Timnit Gebru, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research and a member of the FATE (Fairness Transparency Accountability and Ethics in AI) group, has pointed out in correspondence that machine learning in Africa is privy to a wealth of different kinds of funding: B4 Capital Group, for instance, specializes solely in African and Latin American AI initiatives. The by-product of this kind of funding are AI solutions that are tailored to the problems of each area. Ethiopia, for instance, which has 88 active and individual languages, has been actively developing Natural Language Processing solutions to improve communications.

Nouha Abardazzou, writing for How We Made it in Africa, supports the claim that AI has largely manifested itself in agriculture and healthcare (partially by way of mobile development). One recent AI-driven application has been the ECX e-Trade Platform, which uses Internet of Things (IoT) devices and AI in order to create a coffee-traceability solution that works through all the stages of the supply chain. In the healthcare industry, the SOPHiA artificial intelligence analyses “genomic data to identify disease-causing mutations in patient’s genomic profiles.”

Public awareness about Africa’s role in AI has grown significantly in 2017. Gebru has recently hosted the very first Black in AI workshop at NIPS 2017, which focused not only on the research currently being done in Africa, but also AI work done by black researchers all over the world. Similarly, MIIA recently hosted the very first AI Africa Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, in October of 2017. This conference was a big success, drawing in expert researchers from all over Africa and the rest of the world to talk about real-world applications of deep learning in the continent.

Analysis of Global Trends

Major Movements

Our conference researcher data also allowed us to make some observations about the ways in which researchers have moved, either for work or school. By looking at the discrepancies between the location of the candidates’ alma mater and their current work location, we have found that candidates are likely to move to the USA for their education and then move to another country for work.

The arc-map above shows candidates who, despite being educated in Canada, the UK, Germany, France, or China, were more likely to move to the USA for professional work. Furthermore, these connected countries hold the highest numbers of talent exchanges: “inbound” researchers indicates the number of researchers who moved to that country for work, “outbound” indicates the amount of people who got their PhD in that country and then ended up going somewhere else for employment.

These arcs suggest that the U.S. acts as the “hub” for AI research and education, serving as the link for both the academic and business worlds where AI intersects. Aligning this finding with our previous assessment that Israel’s and Japan’s scholar to LinkedIn profile ratios are nearly 75% and 57%, respectively, we can see how transnational and global collaboration is a key to  sharing AI knowledge and expertise in both industry and in academia.

Interestingly enough, the flows between Asia and Europe are almost non-existent. The AI talent phenomenon is global insofar as it is mediated by the West.

Academia vs Industry

The interplay between the LinkedIn and the conference presenter data allows us to make some interesting observations. Assuming that the conference researchers in this subset all have LinkedIn profiles that were captured in our searches above, we can say, with some approximation, that roughly one third of all AI specialists have at some point presented their research at one of these large academic conferences.

Presenting at conferences understandably skews towards academia. However, there remains an industry presence at these events. The NIPS author demographics indicate that the 2017 conference consisted of 88% academic presenters and 12% industry presenters. While the one-third ratio can seem high, we found that it is a strong global proxy: some countries, such as Israel and Japan, have much higher rates of academics in AI.

This ratio of academics to industry-experts is higher for countries like Germany, where 44% of all LinkedIn candidates are likely to have at one point been conference presenters, and much lower for countries like the UK, where only 14% of AI experts are active in conferences. These trends reflect the journalistic findings that we outlined above: in Germany, it looks like most AI work is happening in academic institutions, while in the UK, AI is more industry-driven, poaching talent from academia in the process.

Israel (75%) and Japan (57%) have the highest ratios between conference researchers and LinkedIn profiles, meaning that their AI work is heavily driven by the academy, which is consistent with the various reporting on these trends. Though, it seems that industry is still a large driver of AI development.

Ireland (1.7%), Brazil (3.3%), and Spain (4.4%) had the lowest ratio of conference presenters to LinkedIn profiles, which suggests that most of the candidates in those countries work in the industry-driven sector of AI research and development.


Although artificial intelligence talent is predominantly U.S.-centric, it is apparent that there are large global hotspots of AI talent in the European, African, and Asian markets. These areas are nonetheless slowly getting tied into the largely Western English-speaking community of academic conferences and LinkedIn industry searches and are set to grow significantly in the coming years.


Written with Fedor Karmanov and Simon Hudson

Research by Yoan Mantha and Julien-Pier Boisvert

Many thanks to all those from the community who reached out and contributed stats, anecdotes, translations and other useful information from their regions:

Bayo Adekanmbi | Ade Akin-Aina | Zainab Bawa | Adel Bibi | Valentine Goddard | Ian Goodfellow | Timnit Gebru | Ahmed Mamdouh A. Hassanien | Kiran Jonnalagadda | Jacques Ludik | Daniel McCormack | Michael James Milne | Shakir Mohamed | Anmol Mohan | Adeyemi Odeneye | Anita Pan | Rufina K. Park | Arjun Ram | Maged Shalaby | Yu Shao | Daniel Shinun | Ahmed Yousef

And special thanks to those at Element AI who provided invaluable commentary:

Jeremy Barnes | Philippe Beaudoin | Nicolas Chapados | Wonchang Chung | Sébastien Paquet | Anqi Xu

Jean-François Gagné is the Chief Executive officer of Element AI.
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Insurtech and disruption bring change to Canadian insurance



Chris Gory
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Canadian insurance companies have yet to fully embrace the potential of blockchain and digital authentication. Meanwhile, other industries are pushing ahead with innovative, enterprise-scale services related to these technologies.

Chris Gory has seen big changes in the insurance industry over the course of his 23-year career. But the founder of Insurance Portfolio Financial Services (IFPS) thinks Canadian insurance companies need to do more to embrace the digital capabilities that are changing businesses across multiple industries.

“As an industry, especially on the benefits side, we really need to embrace change more. When you look at other industries, there’s change going on, and things are changing pretty quick. And we really need to keep up,” he says.

The beginnings of enterprise-scale transformation

What sort of changes are the larger insurance providers undertaking? It’s about more than just putting a shiny new face on the same services. To make real headway, companies need to adopt what EY calls ‘enterprise-scale digital services’.

According to Gory, big providers are already taking steps in the right direction, but the best is yet to come.

The transformation taking place in Canadian insurance is clear when looking at new technologies targeted to improve the customer experience.

  • Manulife has developed Alexa integration, allowing customers to access account information via voice recognition.
  • Sun Life’s new digital coach Ella works with Google Assistant to provide customer support in a similar fashion.
  • Sun Life has also opened up the playing field for blockchain and benefits providers with the recent announcement that the the company is teaming up with SecureKey to help customers verify their credentials.

Gory notes that blockchain innovation has big potential for the insurance industry, especially for benefits — reining in the debilitating paper trail of claims.

Startups and legacy companies push ahead together

The presence of startups within the insurance market has become too large to ignore.

According to the 2017 World Insurance Report, 31.4% of customers rely on insurtech options — either on their own or paired with more established insurance provider offerings.

At IPFS, a company that specializes in providing employee benefits to startups around the world, Gory does business with a lot of the exciting, young companies that are reshaping Canada’s business landscape.

Gory says he has never seen the scale of change currently moving through the insurance space.

“This is something awesome. Before, you wouldn’t see such engagement, such traction with the tech startups, with the insurtechs. You saw some before, but definitely not on the same scale. They’re being more widely accepted than they were say in the Dot Com era. The Dot Com era was pretty limited as to what you could do. There was a certain number of vendors, but you didn’t have the number of insurtechs out there.”

Insurtechs pointing a way forward

“In the benefits space, you’re seeing a lot of companies that are trying to really gain traction in Canada,” says Gory. “They’re competitive, but they’re also pushing the insurance companies to make changes.”

Gory points to a couple of Canadian insurtechs as sources of inspiration and collaboration for larger providers.

  • Insurtech platform League has partnered with business leaders like RBCI, AETNA and Humana to broaden its reach and improve its ability to offer customer solutions.
  • Newcomer Honeybee — a group working under the umbrella of insurance provider Benicaid — has also garnered buzz recently for its non-traditional benefits platform. The online app allows employers to allocate benefits to employee healthcare spending accounts, allowing the employees to choose what they spend their benefits on.

These developments are helping to transform the insurance industry, adapting the wealth of technology that can upgrade outdated systems of file keeping and customer onboarding. And according to Gory, it’s this collaboration and ability to engage with enterprise-scale solutions that is beginning to transform the insurance industry in Canada.

“I think we’re starting to see that they’re realizing, they’ve got to do big picture,” says Gory. “It’s not just small-scale innovation that’s going to set them apart.”

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Blockchain to boost speed, security of insurance claims



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What do the decentralized, shareable ledgers that blockchain technology drives have to offer to the insurance world?

A lot, according to Insurance Portfolio Financial Services founder Chris Gory“I’d love to see blockchain come around,” says Gory. “That’s just going to help with the payment of claims process with all the companies we work with.”

In a recent report, EY outlined how blockchain technology could “be used to address the considerable inefficiencies, gaps and errors caused by poor data quality in both front and back offices” of insurance providers.

Blockchain and Benefits

In the employee benefits space, says Gory, the time it takes to process claims and provide payment is crucial. Blockchain’s ability to provide tamper-proof, shareable records of transactions could drastically speed up the interaction between insurance providers, their customers and third parties.

”I’ve had a number of clients reach out and say ‘Hey, can you move us away from Company A, Company B, Company C’ because claims payment is taking so long. With blockchain you can get that done a lot faster.

“You can integrate third parties and actually have better coordination of benefits. If someone’s using a third party for say a health care spending account, you could have more integration between the benefits plan and the spending account. There’s so many different possibilities with blockchain I could see playing out within the next 24 to 36 months.”

The use of smart contracts that speed up the validation of client documents could lead to big reductions in administration costs for benefits providers, as well as higher customer retention.

Where are insurance companies currently with blockchain?

As in other industries, it’s early days yet for blockchain and insurance.

Most insurance groups are still in the testing stages, according to a recent report from KPMG.

But investment into the new technology is high among industry leaders: AXA Strategic Ventures, and other partners, invested around $55 million in a blockchain startup; and USAA contributed $75 million into a blockchain-driven digital currency in 2016.

A recent job posting by John Hancock also shows where the industry is headed.

The posting indicated the Manulife offshoot is seeking a developer to “come explore blockchain with us.” While the company’s efforts appear to be in the proof of concept stage, developments could be ported over quickly to the company’s larger insurance infrastructure.

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