Breakthrough Technologies for 2021

These potential breakthroughs, if they pan out, will ripple through society and, thus, through the world of insurance.

The MIT Technology Review's list of technologies to watch is always intriguing, and this year it's even more portentous than normal.

The list begins with developments in messenger RNA, which has not only delivered vaccines against COVID-19 but which may allow for other breakthrough vaccines and may even create novel treatments for cancer.

The Review also describes two developments in AI that will greatly broaden its capabilities, plus a potentially much more precise version of GPS, among several other things.

Many, if they pan out, would ripple through society and, thus, through the world of insurance. Let's have a look.

The MIT Technology Review article begins with the startling array of possible applications for the mRNA technology that allowed for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and other vaccines for COVID-19. While the technology had never been used in humans before, the success of the vaccines shows that it can be used in highly precise, targeted ways.

There is now hope for developing vaccines for HIV and malaria, each of which kills about a million people a year worldwide and which have resisted previous attempts at producing a vaccine. The fatty nanoparticles that protect the mRNA as the vaccine is injected into a person may also be able to deliver other microscopic "tools," such as those used for gene-editing, which might be able to cure genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and remove conditions that can cause cancer and heart attacks.

The medical breakthroughs may not come for some time, so they may not be of urgent concern to health and life insurers, but it's hard to know. Moderna designed its mRNA-based vaccine within two days of getting the full genome of COVID-19 -- before the U.S. even had its first diagnosed case -- and had actual vaccines ready for testing in animals within six weeks.

(Amid today's discussions about what value will come from having people return to offices, I find it intriguing that Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, the two researchers who developed the basic technology for mRNA-based vaccines, began their collaboration after they met while standing in line to use a copy machine at a lab at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s.)

The two developments that the Review singled out in AI likely won't find their way into the world of insurance quickly, but they're still fascinating.

First is OpenAI's GPT-3, which can mimic human writing. It has its issues but can also be scary good. For instance, a Review article says that a human provided this to the AI as a prompt:

"In a shocking finding, scientists discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English."

The AI was asked to continue the story, and it added: 

"They also were found to have perfectly coiffed hair, and wore what appeared to be Dior makeup. 

"'We were shocked to discover the unicorns,' said anthropologist Daniel St. Maurice. 'They were like nothing we had ever seen before. We had heard legends of the unicorns, but never thought they actually existed.'

"When the scientists first arrived in the valley, the unicorns were surprised and startled by the presence of humans, but were also excited. The unicorns welcomed the researchers and explained that they had been waiting for them for a very long time."

Whoa, right?

The second AI development is progress in combining language capabilities, like those provided by GPT-3, with sensing capabilities like machine vision to give AI a more natural understanding of the world. A Review sidebar says a "multimodal" AI drew a picture based just on the words in a caption. In time, the new approach could lead to devices that would take a far wider variety of verbal directions than is possible now.

That would mean everything from nice-to-haves like new forms of Alexa in the home, to more sophisticated robots in factories and other workplaces that would reduce workers comp claims. A more aware form of AI would also help in areas where AI is currently being applied, including claims and underwriting.

As for the developments in GPS, a more precise version is already being deployed via new satellites and will take us from today's accuracy (generally within five to 10 yards) to accuracy of within one to three yards by 2023, but that's just the beginning. Already, a Chinese system based on satellites, ground stations and a network of sensors can detect movement of ground at the millimeter level -- roughly the size of the tip of a sharp pencil -- from 13,000 miles up in space.

I tend to think of better GPS as improving the directions I'm given or, in the intermediate term, allowing drones, robots or automated vehicles to deliver things to me more easily, but the new GPS systems will tackle far more important problems than whether a drone delivers my pizza while it's still hot. For instance, a Review sidebar described how the Chinese system spotted surface sliding following days of heavy rain last summer and evacuated 33 villagers days before a massive mud slide wiped out their homes. Such warning systems could greatly reduce the losses in many natural disasters.

The Review also describes a new type of battery that may accelerate the adoption of electric cars, plus a move toward "data trusts" that could blunt the control that Facebook and other social media platforms have over users.

If you're a tenth as interested in the future of technology as I am, the list of breakthroughs is worth a look. It'll broaden your horizons -- and maybe scare you a little.

Stay safe.


P.S. Here are articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

Pressure to Innovate Shifts Priorities

Strategic planning needs to be bold enough to match the velocity and magnitude of the changes the industry faces.

How AI Will Define Insurance Workforce

If data analytics and AI become staples in modern business, how do they solve the human resource problem? The answer is threefold.

Claims Development for COVID (Part 1)

This first article will cover COVID-19 claims data. Part 2 will provide more details on long-term medical effects.

7 Ways to Innovate With Purpose

Now is the time to ask the basic question — "what is our purpose?" The answer will align strategy, people, capital and other resources.

5 Things to Know When Integrating AI

It can be challenging to see which provider actu

Insurance Outlook for 2021

It may feel like the end of the pandemic is in sight, but the shock waves created by 2020 will reverberate for years.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.