Tag Archives: Ethereum

The Opportunities in Blockchain

Blockchain and smart contracts have enabled the development of new approaches in the insurance industry, as they begin to replace outdated business models (with excessive paperwork, communication problems, multiple data operating systems and duplication of processes and the inability of syndicates to mine their data). By digitizing payments and assets—thus eliminating tedious paperwork—and facilitating the management of contracts, blockchain and smart contracts can help cut operational costs and improve efficiency. Smart contracts also allow for automation of insurance claims and other processes as well as privacy, security and transparency. It is estimated that roughly one-third of blockchain use cases are in the insurance industry.

How Blockchain Is Used in Insurance

How will blockchain and smart contracts transform the insurance industry?

  • Quick and efficient processing and verification of claims, automatic payments—all in a modular fashion, thus minimizing paperwork.
  • Transparency, minimizing fraud, secure and decentralized transactions, reliable tracking of asset provenance and improving the quality of data used in underwriting. Besides improving efficiency, this also reduces counterparty risks, ensuring trust and safety both from the insurer’s and customer’s perspective. By computing at a network, rather than individual, company level, the consumer is reassured that the process was completed appropriately and as agreed upon. From the perspective of the insurance company, this fosters trust, as well, and encourages consistency, as the blockchain provides transparent and permanent information about the transactions.

The insurance industry has traditionally been associated with tedious administration, paperwork and mistrust; the incorporation of blockchain, however, has the ability to transform this image by bringing operational efficiency, security, and transparency. The long-term strategic benefits of blockchain are thus clear.

Top insurance blockchain projects:

AIG (American International Group) – Smart contract insurance policies

HQ: New York

Description: AIG, in conjunction with IBM, has developed a “smart” insurance policy utilizing blockchain to manage complex international coverage.

Blockchain network: Bitcoin

Deployment: In June 2017, AIG and IBM announced the successful completion of their “smart contract” multinational policy pilot for Standard Chartered Bank. It is said to be the first such policy to employ the blockchain digital ledger technology.

Fidentiax – Marketplace for tradable insurance policies

HQ: Singapore

Description: As “the world’s first marketplace for tradable insurance policies,” Fidentiax hopes to establish a trading marketplace and repository of insurance policies for the masses through the use of blockchain technology.

Blockchain network: Ethereum

Deployment: Fidentiax succeeded in raising funds for the project through its Crowd Token Contribution (CTC, aka ICO) in December 2017.

See also: How Insurance and Blockchain Fit  

Swiss Re – Smart contract management system

HQ: Zurich, Switzerland

Description: Swiss Re, a leading wholesale provider of reinsurance, insurance and other insurance-based forms of risk transfer, has partnered with 15 of Europe’s largest insurers and reinsurers (Achmea, Aegon, Ageas, Allianz, Generali, Hannover Re, Liberty Mutual, Munich Re, RGA, SCOR, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance, Tokio Marine Holdings, XL Catlin and the Zurich Insurance Group) to incorporate and evaluate the use of blockchain technology in the insurance industry. The Blockchain Insurance Industry Initiative (B3i) hopes to educate insurers and reinsurers on the employment of the blockchain technology in the insurance market. It serves as a platform for blockchain knowledge exchange and offers access to research and information on use case experiments. As of yet, there have only been individual company use cases in the industry. B3i is working to facilitate the widespread adoption of blockchain across the entire insurance value chain by evaluating its implementation as a viable tool for the industry in general and customers in particular. The initiative envisions efficient and modern management of insurance transactions with common standards and practices. To this end, it has developed a smart contract management system to explore the potential of distributed ledger technologies as a way to improve services to clients by making them faster, more convenient and secure.

Blockchain network: Ethereum

Deployment: B3i was launched in in October 2016. On Sept. 7, 2017, B3i presented a fully functional beta version of its blockchain-run joint distributed ledger for reinsurance transactions. On March 23, 2018, the B3i Initiative incorporated B3i Services company to continue to promote the B3i Initiative’s goal of transforming the insurance industry through blockchain technology.

Sofocle – Automating claim settlement

HQ: Northern Ireland, U.K.

Description: Through smart contracts, AI and mobile apps, Sofocle employs blockchain technology to automate insurance processes. All relevant documents can be uploaded by customers via mobile app, thus minimizing paperwork. Use of smart contracts allows for a far more efficient and faster settlement process. Claims agents can verify insurance claims, which are recorded on the blockchain in real time. The smart contracts allow for verification of a predetermined condition by an external data source (trigger), following which the customer automatically receives the claims payment.

Blockchain network: Bitcoin

Dynamis – P2P Insurance

HQ: U.K.

Description: Dynamis’ Ethereum-based platform provides peer-to-peer (P2P) supplementary unemployment insurance, using the LinkedIn social network as a reputation system. When applying for a policy, the applicant’s identity and employment status is verified through LinkedIn. Claimants are also able to validate that they are seeking employment through their LinkedIn connections. Participants can acquire new policies or open new claims by exercising their social capital within their social network.

Blockchain Network: Ethereum and Bitcoin

Deployment: The goal of Dynamis is the creation of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) to restore trust and transparency in the insurance industry. Its community-based unemployment insurance employs smart contracts and runs on the Ethereum blockchain platform. Using social networking data and validation points, Dynamis verifies a claimant’s employment status among peers and colleagues. It also depends on Bitcoin-powered smart contracts to automate claims.

Conclusion

Recognizing the benefits of blockchain and smart contracts, the insurance industry has begun to explore their potential. With the traditional insurance model, validating an insurer’s claim is a lengthy, complicated process. Blockchain has the ability to combine various resources into smart contract validation. It also offers transparency, allowing the customer to play an active role in the process and to see what is being validated. This fosters trust between the insurer and the customer. Despite the obvious benefits of blockchain for insurers, reinsurers and customers, the industry has yet to adopt blockchain on a large scale. The primary reason for this is that blockchain adoption has until now required in-depth knowledge and skills in blockchain-specific programming languages. The limited number and high cost of hiring blockchain experts have rendered the technology out of reach for many businesses in the industry. Without access to the technology, exposure to blockchain and the ability to reap its benefits will remain limited for insurance companies.

How can these obstacles be overcome? The key is accessibility to enable all parties within the insurance ecosystem to reap the benefits of blockchain and smart contracts. There is a dire need for a bridge between the blockchain technology and these industry players. This is the role that the iOlite platform fulfills. iOlite provides mainstream businesses with easy access to blockchain technology. iOlite is integrated via an IDE (integrated development environment) plugin, maintaining a familiar environment for programmers and providing untrained users simple tools to work with. The iOlite platform thus enables any business to integrate blockchain into its workflow to write smart contracts and design blockchain applications using natural language.

How it works? iOlite’s open-source platform translates any natural language into smart contract code available for execution on any blockchain. The solution utilizes CI (collective intelligence), in essence a crowdsourcing of coder expertise, which is aggregated into a knowledge database, i.e. iOlite Blockchain. This knowledge is then used by the iOlite NLP grammar engine (based on Stanford UC research), the Fast Adaptation Engine (FAE), to migrate input text into the target blockchain executable code.

See also: Blockchain – What Is It Good for?  

The future of blockchain in insurance

With a clear direction of blockchain adoption for the future, insurance companies will be forced to adapt or be left behind. The adoption of blockchain by the insurance industry is no longer a question of if but how.

Blockchain: Bad Tech, Worse Vision

Blockchain is not only lousy technology but a bad vision for the future. Its failure to achieve adoption to date is because systems built on trust, norms and institutions inherently function better than the type of no-need-for-trusted-parties systems blockchain envisions. That’s permanent: No matter how much blockchain improves, it is still headed in the wrong direction.

This December, I wrote a widely circulated article on the inapplicability of blockchain to any actual problem. People objected mostly not to the technology argument, but, rather, hoped that decentralization could produce integrity.

Let’s start with this: Venmo is a free service to transfer dollars, and bitcoin transfers are not free. Yet, after I wrote an article last December saying bitcoin had no use, someone responded that Venmo and Paypal are raking in consumers’ money, and people should switch to bitcoin.

What a surreal contrast between blockchain’s non-usefulness/non-adoption and the conviction of its believers! It’s so entirely evident that this person didn’t become a bitcoin enthusiast because he was looking for a convenient, free way to transfer money from one person to another and discovered bitcoin. In fact, I would assert that there is no single person in existence who had a problem he wanted to solve, discovered that an available blockchain solution was the best way to solve it and therefore became a blockchain enthusiast.

The number of retailers accepting cryptocurrency as a form of payment is declining, and its biggest corporate boosters, like IBM, NASDAQ, Fidelity, Swift and Walmart, have gone long on press but short on actual rollout. Even the most prominent blockchain company, Ripple, doesn’t use blockchain in its product. You read that right: The company Ripple decided the best way to move money across international borders was to not use Ripples.

A blockchain is a literal technology, not a metaphor

Why all the enthusiasm for something so useless in practice?

People have made a number of implausible claims about the future of blockchain—like that you should use it for AI in place of the type of behavior-tracking that Google and Facebook do, for example. This is based on a misunderstanding of what a blockchain is. A blockchain isn’t an ethereal thing out there in the universe that you can “put” things into; it’s a specific data structure, a linear transaction log, typically replicated by computers whose owners (called miners) are rewarded for logging new transactions.

There are two things that are cool about this particular data structure. One is that a change in any block invalidates every block after it, which means that you can’t tamper with historical transactions. The second is that you only get rewarded if you’re working on the same chain as everyone else, so each participant has an incentive to go with the consensus.

The result is a shared definitive historical record. What’s more, because consensus is formed by each person acting in his own interest, adding a false transaction or working from a different history just means you’re not getting paid and everyone else is. Following the rules is mathematically enforced—no government or police force need come in and tell you the transaction you’ve logged is false (or extort bribes or bully the participants). It’s a powerful idea.

So in summary, here’s what blockchain-the-technology is: “Let’s create a very long sequence of small files — each one containing a hash of the previous file, some new data and the answer to a difficult math problem — and divide up some money every hour among anyone willing to certify and store those files for us on their computers.”

See also: How Insurance Can Exploit Blockchain

Now, here’s what blockchain-the-metaphor is: “What if everyone keeps their records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone?”

An illustration of the difference: In 2006, Walmart launched a system to track its bananas and mangoes from field to store. In 2009, Walmart abandoned the system because of logistical problems getting everyone to enter the data, and in 2017 Walmart re-launched it (to much fanfare) on blockchain. If someone comes to you with “the mango-pickers don’t like doing data entry,” “I know: let’s create a very long sequence of small files, each one containing a hash of the previous file” is a nonsense answer, but “What if everyone keeps their records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone?” at least addresses the right question!

Blockchain-based trustworthiness falls apart in practice

People treat blockchain as a “futuristic integrity wand”—wave a blockchain at the problem, and suddenly your data will be valid. For almost anything people want to be valid, blockchain has been proposed as a solution.

It’s true that tampering with data stored on a blockchain is hard, but it’s false that blockchain is a good way to create data that has integrity.

To understand why this is the case, let’s work from the practical to the theoretical. For example, let’s consider a widely proposed use case for blockchain: buying an e-book with a “smart” contract. The goal of the blockchain is, you don’t trust an e-book vendor, and the vendor doesn’t trust you (because you’re just two individuals on the internet), but, because of blockchain, you’ll be able to trust the transaction.

In the traditional system, once you pay you’re hoping you’ll receive the book, but once the vendor has your money the vendor doesn’t have any incentive to deliver. You’re relying on Visa or Amazon or the government to make things fair—what a recipe for being a chump! In contrast, on a blockchain system, by executing the transaction as a record in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone, the transfer of money and digital product is automatic, atomic and direct, with no middleman needed to arbitrate the transaction, dictate terms and take a fat cut on the way. Isn’t that better for everybody?

Hmm. Perhaps you are very skilled at writing software. When the novelist proposes the smart contract, you take an hour or two to make sure that the contract will withdraw only an amount of money equal to the agreed-upon price, and that the book — rather than some other file, or nothing at all — will actually arrive.

Auditing software is hard! The most heavily scrutinized smart contract in history had a small bug that nobody noticed — that is, until someone did notice it and used it to steal $50 million. If cryptocurrency enthusiasts putting together a $150 million investment fund can’t properly audit the software, how confident are you in your e-book audit? Perhaps you would rather write your own counteroffer software contract, in case this e-book author has hidden a recursion bug in his version to drain your ethereum wallet of all your life savings?

It’s a complicated way to buy a book! It’s not trustless; you’re trusting in the software (and your ability to defend yourself in a software-driven world), instead of trusting other people.

Another example: the purported advantages for a voting system in a weakly governed country. “Keep your voting records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone” sounds right — yet is your Afghan villager going to download the blockchain from a broadcast node and decrypt the Merkle root from his Linux command line to independently verify that his vote has been counted? Or will he rely on the mobile app of a trusted third party — like the nonprofit or open-source consortium administering the election or providing the software?

These sound like stupid examples — novelists and villagers hiring e-bodyguard hackers to protect them from malicious customers and nonprofits whose clever smart-contracts might steal their money and votes?? — until you realize that’s actually the point. Instead of relying on trust or regulation, in the blockchain world, individuals are on-purpose responsible for their own security precautions. And if the software they use is malicious or buggy, they should have read the software more carefully.

The entire worldview underlying blockchain is wrong

You actually see it over and over again. Blockchain systems are supposed to be more trustworthy, but in fact they are the least trustworthy systems in the world. Today, in less than a decade, three successive top bitcoin exchanges have been hacked, another is accused of insider trading, the demonstration-project DAO smart contract got drained, crypto price swings are 10 times those of the world’s most mismanaged currencies and bitcoin, the “killer app” of crypto transparency, is almost certainly artificially propped up by fake transactions involving billions of literally imaginary dollars.

Blockchain systems do not magically make the data in them accurate or the people entering the data trustworthy; they merely enable you to audit whether the chain has been tampered with. A person who sprayed pesticides on a mango can still enter onto a blockchain system that the mangoes were organic. A corrupt government can create a blockchain system to count the votes and just allocate an extra million addresses to cronies. An investment fund whose charter is written in software can still misallocate funds.

How then, is trust created?

In the case of buying an e-book, even if you’re buying it with a smart contract, instead of auditing the software you’ll rely on one of four things, each of them characteristics of the “old way”: Either the author of the smart contract is someone you know of and trust, the seller of the e-book has a reputation to uphold, you or friends of yours have bought e-books from this seller in the past successfully or you’re just willing to hope that this person will deal fairly. In each case, even if the transaction is effectuated via a smart contract, in practice you’re relying on trust of a counterparty or middleman, not your self-protective right to audit the software, each man an island unto himself. The contract still works, but the fact that the promise is written in auditable software rather than government-enforced English makes it less transparent, not more transparent.

The same for the vote counting. Before blockchain can even get involved, you need to trust that voter registration is done fairly, that ballots are given only to eligible voters, that the votes are made anonymously rather than bought or intimidated, that the vote displayed by the balloting system is the same as the vote recorded and that no extra votes are given to the political cronies to cast. Blockchain makes none of these problems easier and many of them harder—more importantly, solving them in a blockchain context requires a set of awkward workarounds that undermine the core premise. So we know the entries are valid, let’s allow only trusted nonprofits to make entries—and you’re back at the good old “classic” ledger. In fact, if you look at any blockchain solution, inevitably you’ll find an awkward workaround to re-create trusted parties in a trustless world.

A crypto-medieval system

Yet absent these “old way” factors—supposing you actually attempted to rely on blockchain’s self-interest/self-protection to build a real system—you’d be in a real mess.

Eight hundred years ago in Europe — with weak governments unable to enforce laws and trusted counterparties few, fragile and far between — theft was rampant, safe banking was a fantasy and personal security was at the point of the sword. This is what Somalia looks like now–and what it looks like to transact on the blockchain in the ideal scenario.

Somalia on purpose. That’s the vision. Nobody wants it!

Even the most die-hard crypto enthusiasts prefer in practice to rely on trust rather than their own crypto-medieval systems. 93% of bitcoins are mined by managed consortiums, yet none of the consortiums use smart contracts to manage payouts. Instead, they promise things like a “long history of stable and accurate payouts.” Sounds like a trustworthy middleman!

See also: Collaborating for a Better Blockchain

Same with Silk Road, a cryptocurrency-driven online drug bazaar. The key to Silk Road wasn’t the bitcoins (that was just to evade government detection), it was the reputation scores that allowed people to trust criminals. And the reputation scores weren’t tracked on a tamper-proof blockchain, they were tracked by a trusted middleman!

If Ripple, Silk Road, Slush Pool and the DAO all prefer “old way” systems of creating and enforcing trust, it’s no wonder that the outside world had not adopted trustless systems either!

In the name of all blockchain stands for, it’s time to abandon blockchain

A decentralized, tamper-proof repository sounds like a great way to audit where your mango comes from, how fresh it is and whether it has been sprayed with pesticides. But actually, laws on food labeling, nonprofit or government inspectors, an independent, trusted free press, empowered workers who trust whistleblower protections, credible grocery stores, your local nonprofit farmer’s market and so on do a way better job. People who actually care about food safety do not adopt blockchain because trusted is better than trustless. Blockchain’s technology mess exposes its metaphor mess — a software engineer pointing out that storing the data as a sequence of small hashed files won’t get the mango pickers to accurately report whether they sprayed pesticides is also pointing out why peer-to-peer interaction with no regulations, norms, middlemen or trusted parties is actually a bad way to empower people.

Like the farmer’s market or the organic labeling standard, so many real ideas are hiding in plain sight. Do you wish there was a type of financial institution that was secure and well-regulated in all the traditional ways, but also has the integrity of being people-powered? A credit union’s members elect its directors, and the transaction-processing revenue is divided up among the members. Move your money! Prefer a deflationary monetary policy? Central bankers are appointed by elected leaders. Want to make elections more secure and democratic? Help write open source voting software, go out and register voters or volunteer as an election observer here or abroad! Wish there was a trusted e-book delivery service that charged lower transaction fees and distributed more of the earnings to the authors? You can already consider stated payout rates when you buy music or books, buy directly from the authors or start your own e-book site that’s even better than what’s out there!

Projects based on the elimination of trust have failed to capture customers’ interest because trust is actually so damn valuable. A lawless and mistrustful world where self-interest is the only principle and paranoia is the only source of safety is a not a paradise but a crypto-medieval hellhole.

As a society, and as technologists and entrepreneurs in particular, we’re going to have to get good at cooperating — at building trust and at being trustworthy. Instead of directing resources to the elimination of trust, we should direct our resources to the creation of trust—whether we use a long series of sequentially hashed files as our storage medium or not.

What Blockchain Means for Analytics

I recently had the pleasure of attending #CityChain17 (blockchain conference) at IBM’s SouthBank offices.

Chaired by Paul Forrest (chairman of MBN Solutions), the conference was an opportunity to learn about blockchain and how it is being applied.

In the past, I viewed the hype about blockchain (following excitement about Bitcoin its most famous user) as just another fad that might pass.

However, as more businesses have got involved in piloting potential applications, it’s become obvious that there really is something in this – even if its manifestations are now much more commercial than the hacking by Bitcoin fans.

CityChain17 brought together a number of suppliers and those helping shape the industry. It was a great opportunity to hear voices, at times contradictory,and see what progress has been made toward mainstream adoption. There was so much useful content that I made copious notes and will share a series of two blog posts on this topic.

So, without further ado, as a new topic for our blog, here is part 1 of my recollections from this blockchain conference.

Introducing blockchain and why it matters

The first speaker was John McLean from IBM. He reviewed the need that businesses have for a solution to the problem of increasingly complex business and market networks, with the need to securely exchange assets, payments or approvals between multiple parties. He explained that, at core, blockchain is just a distributed ledger across such a network.

In such a scenario, all participants have a regulated local copy of the ledger, with bespoke permissions to approve blocks of information.

However, he also highlighted that today’s commercial applications of blockchain differ from the famous Bitcoin implementation:

  • Such applications can be internal or external.
  • Business blockchain has identity rather than anonymity, selective endorsement versus proof of work and wider range of assets vs. a cryptocurrency.
  • Blockchain for businesses is interesting because of the existing problems it solves. Broader participation in shared ledger reduces cost and reconciliation workload. Smart contracts offer embedded business rules with the data blocks on the ledger. Privacy improves because transactions are secure, authenticated and verifiable. So does trust because all parties are able to trust a shared ledger – all bought in.
  • Several sectors are currently testing blockchain implementations, including financial services, retail, insurance, manufacturing and the public sector.

Finally, John went on to outline how IBM is currently enabling this use of blockchain technology (including through its participation in the Hyperledger consortium and its Fabric Composer tool).

See also: 5 Main Areas for Blockchain Impact  

Comparing blockchain to databases, anything new?

As someone who was involved in the early days of data warehouses and data mining, I was delighted to hear the next speaker (Dr. Gideon Greenspan from Coin Sciences) talk about databases. Acknowledging that a number of the so-called unique benefits of blockchain can already be delivered by databases, Gideon began by suggesting there had been three phases of solutions to the business challenges of exchanging and coordinating data:

  1. Peer-to-peer messaging
  2. Central shared database
  3. Peer-to-peer databases

He had some great examples of how the “unique benefits” of blockchain could be achieved with databases already:

  • Ensuring consensus in data (B-trees in relational databases)
  • Smart contracts (the logic in these equal stored procedures)
  • Append-only inserts (database that only allows inserts)
  • Safe asset exchanges (the ACID model of database transactions)
  • Robustness (distributed and massively parallel databases)

Even more entertaining, in a room that was mainly full of blockchain advocates, developers or consultants, Gideon went on to list what was worse about blockchain vs. databases:

  • Transaction immediacy (ACID approach is durable, but blockchains need to wait for consensus)
  • Scalability (because of checks, blockchain nodes need to work harder)
  • Confidentiality (blockchains share more data)

After such honesty and frankly geeky database technology knowledge, Gideon was well-placed to be an honest adviser on sensible use of blockchain. He pointed out the need to consider the trade-offs between blockchain and database solutions. For instance, what is more important for your business application:

  • Disintermediation or confidentiality?
  • Multiparty robustness or performance?

Moving to more encouraging examples, he shared a few that have promising blockchain pilots underway:

  1. An instant payment network (using tokens to represent money, it’s faster, with real-time reconciliation and regulatory transparency)
  2. Shared metadata solution (as all data added to the blockchain is signed, time-stamped and immutable – interesting for GDPR requirements, even if the “right to be forgotten” sounds challenging)
  3. Multi-jurisdiction processes (regulators are interested)
  4. Lightweight financial systems (e.g. loyalty schemes)
  5. Internal clearing and settlements (e.g. multinationals)

But a final warning from Gideon was to be on the watch for what he termed “half-baked blockchains.” He pointed out the foolishness of:

  • Blockchains with one central validator
  • Shared state blockchains (same trust model as a distributed database)
  • Centrally hosted blockchain (why not a centralized database?)

Gideon referenced his work providing the multichain open platform, as another source for advice and resources.

Blockchain is more complex, hence the need for technical expertise

A useful complement (or contradictory voice, depending on your perspective) was offered next. Simon Taylor (founder of 11:FS and ex-Barclays innovation leader), shared more on the diversity of technology solutions.

Simon is also the founder of yet another influential and useful group working on developing/promoting blockchain, the R3 Consortium. He credits much of what he has learned to a blogger called Richard Brown, who offers plenty of advice and resources on his blog:

One idea from Richard that Simon shared is the idea that different technology implementations of blockchain, or platforms for developing, are best understood as being on a continuum, from more centralized applications for FS (like Hyperledger and Corda) being at one end and the radically decentralized Wild West making up the other end (Bitcoin, z-Cash and Ethereum). He suggests the interesting opportunities lie in the middle ground between these poles (currently occupied by approaches like Stellar and Ripple).

Simon went on to suggest a number of principles that are important to understand:

  • The shared ledger concept offers better automated reconciliation across markets.
  • But, as a result, confidentiality is a challenge (apparently Corda et al. are solving this, but at the expense of more centralization).
  • No one vendor (or code-base/platform) has yet won.
  • It is more complicated than the advertising suggests, so look past the proof of concept work to see what has been delivered (he suggests looking at interesting work in Tel Aviv and at what Northern Trust is doing).

To close, Simon echoed a few suggestions that will sound familiar to data science leaders. There continues to be an education and skills gap. C-Suite executives recognize there is a lot of hype in this area and so are seeking people they can trust as advisers. Pilot a few options and see what approach works best for your organization.

He also mentioned the recruitment challenge and suggested not overlooking hidden gems in your own organization. Who is coding in their spare time anyway?

In his Q&A, GDPR also got mentioned, with a suggestion that auditors will value blockchain implementations as reference points with clear provenance.

See also: Why Blockchain Matters to Insurers  

Time for a blockchain panel

After three talks, we had the opportunity to enjoy a panel debate. Paul Forrest facilitated, and we heard answers on a number of topics from experts across the industry. Those I agreed with (and thus remembered) were Tomasz Mloduchowski, Isabel Cooke and Parrish Pryor-Williams.

I took the opportunity to ask about the opportunity for more cooperation between the data science and blockchain communities, citing that both technology innovations needed to prove their worth to the C-suite and had some overlapping data needs. All speakers agreed that more cooperation between these communities would be helpful.

Isabel’s team at Barclays apparently benefits from being co-located with the data science team, and Parrish reinforced the need to focus on customer insights to guide application of both technologies. What panelists appear to be missing is that, in most large organizations, blockchain is being tested within IT or digital teams, with data science left to marketing or finance/actuarial teams. This could mean a continued risk of siloed thinking rather than the cooperation needed.

An entertaining, question concerned what to do with all the fakes now rapidly adding blockchain as a buzzword to their CVs and LinkedIn profiles. Surprisingly, panelists were largely positive about this development. They viewed it as an encouraging tipping point of demand and a case that some will need to fake it ’til they make it. There was also an encouragement to use meetups to get up-to-speed more quickly (for candidates and those asking the questions).

The panel also agreed that there was still a lack of agreement on terms and language, which sometimes got in the way. Like the earlier days of internet and data science, there are still blockchain purists railing against the more commercial variants. But the consensus was that standards would emerge and that most businesses were remaining agnostic on technologies while they learned through pilots.

The future for blockchain was seen as being achieved via collaborations, like R3 and Hyperledger. A couple of panelists also saw fintech startups as the ideal contenders to innovate in this space, having the owner/innovator mindset as well as the financial requirements.

It will be interesting to see which predictions turn out to be right.

What next for blockchain and you?

How do you think blockchain develops, and do you care? Will it matter for your business? Have you piloted to test that theory?

I hope my reflections act as a useful contact list of those with expertise to share in this area. Let us know if this topic is something you would like covered more, on Customer Insight Leader blog.

That’s it for now. More diverse voices on blockchain in Part 2….

What’s in Store for Blockchain?

Blockchain, blockchain, blockchain! What does that mean for insurance? No one knows yet, but that doesn’t stop blockchain from being one of the hottest topics in the insurance industry right now. This week, I take a look at the direction this puck is heading.

Hype or reality?

Last September, the World Economic Forum published a report titled, Deep Shift – Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact. The report is based on surveys with more than 800 executives and experts about new technologies and innovations. The point of the report is to identify deep shifts in society that result from new technologies. These include areas such as 3D printing, driverless cars, wearables and artificial intelligence.

I was drawn to shift No. 16, simply called “Bitcoin and the blockchain.” By 2025, 58% of these experts and executives believed we would hit the tipping point for Bitcoin and blockchain. This was defined as:

“10% of global gross domestic product will be stored on blockchain technology.”

To put that into context, the total worth of Bitcoin today in the blockchain is about 0.025% of today’s $80 trillion global GDP.

Also of interest, especially given that it looks like Tunisia will be the first country to issue a digital currency on a blockchain, shift No. 18 was called “Governments and the blockchain.” Here, almost three out of four in the survey group expected that “governments would collect tax via a blockchain by 2023.”

It’s a reality then!

It’s certainly looks that way. And $500 million of venture capital money in 2015 can’t be wrong, can it?

The prospect of a seismic shift on a par with the impact of the Internet is compelling. That explains all the attention, predictions and excitement about blockchain. But, if we use the evolution of the Internet as a benchmark, the development of blockchain today for commercial use is equivalent to the Internet in, say, the mid-1990s, at best.

The debates on Bitcoin, on whether private or public blockchains will be used, on Sybase vs Oracle (oops, wrong century) are yet to play out. The ability of the Bitcoin blockchain to scale to handle massive volumes at lightning speed remains unproven.

Now, just as it was in 1995, blockchain technology is at an embryonic stage. Still finding its way, it has yet to prove it is a viable, industrial-strength, large-scale technology capable of solving world hunger.

That is why I am going to focus on the use case for insurance rather than the technology itself. (For one explanation of how blockchain works, go to Wired.)

The smart insurance contract

This is getting the most attention right now. The notion of automating the insurance policy once it is written into a smart contract is compelling. The idea that it will pay out against the insurable event without the policyholder having to a make a claim or the insurer having to administer the claim has significant attractions.

First, the cost of claims processing simply goes away. Second, the opportunity for fraud largely goes away, too. (I hesitate here simply because it is theoretical and not yet proven.) Third, customer satisfaction must go up!

One example being used to illustrate how these might work came from the London Fintech Week Blockchain Hackathon last September. Here, a team called InsurETH built a flight insurance product over a weekend on the Ethereum platform.

The use case is simple. In the 12 months leading up to May 2015, there were 558,000 passengers who did not file claims for delayed or canceled flights in and out of the UK. In fact, fewer than 40% of passengers claimed money from their insurance policy.

InsurETH built a smart contract where the policy conditions were held on blockchain. Using the Oraclize service to connect the blockchain with the Internet, publicly available data is used to trigger the insurance policy.

In this case, a delayed flight is a matter of fact and public record. It does not rely on anyone’s judgement or individual assessment. It is what it is. If a delayed flight occurs, the smart contract gets triggered, and the payout is made, automatically and immediately, with no claims processing costs for the insurer and to the satisfaction of the customer.

Building on this example and applying it to motor, smart contracts offer a solution for insurers to control claims costs after an accident. A trigger that there has been an accident would come to the blockchain via the Internet from a smartphone app or a connected car. Insurers are always frustrated when customers go a more expensive route for repairs, recovery and car hire. So, with a smart contract, insurers could code the policy conditions to only pay out to the designated third parties (see related article by Sia Partners).

So long as the policy conditions are clear and unambiguous and the conditions for paying are objective, insurance can be written in a smart contract. When the conditions are undeniably reached, the smart contract pays. As blockchain startup SmartContract put it, “Any data feed trusted by a counterparty to release payment or simply complete an agreement can power a smart contract.”

To understand this better, I asked Joshua Davis, the technical architect and co-founder at blockchain p2p InsurTech Dynamis, to explain. He said:

“You need well-qualified oracle(s) to establish what ‘conditions’ exist in the real world and when they have been ‘undeniably reached.’  An oracle is a bridge between the blockchain and the current state of places, people and things in the real world.  Without qualified oracles, there can be no insurance that has any relation to the world that we live in.

“As far as oracles go, you can use either a single trusted oracle, who puts up a large escrow that is lost if they feed you misinformation, or many different oracles who don’t rely on the same POV [point of view] or data sources to verify that events occurred.

“In the future, social networks will be the cheapest and most used decentralized data feeds for various different insurance applications.  Our social networks will validate and verify our statements as lies or facts.  We need to be able to reliably contact a large enough segment of a claimant’s social network to obtain the truth.  If the insurance policy can monitor the publishing or notification of our current status to these participants and their responses accurately confirm it, then social networks will make for the cheapest, most reliable oracles for all types of future claims validation efforts.”

Is this simply too good to be true?

Personally, I don’t think it is. Of course, a smart contract doesn’t have to be on the blockchain to deliver this use case.

However, what the blockchain offers is trust. And it offers provenance. The blockchain provides an immutable record and audit trail of an agreement. The policyholder does not have to rely on the insurer’s decision to pay damages because the insurer has broken its promise to keep the client safe from harm. As the WEF report states, this is an “unbreakable escrow.” The insurer will pay before it even knows what happened.

There’s another reason for going with the blockchain: cybersecurity!

With the blockchain sitting outside the corporate firewall and being managed by many different and unconnected parties, the cyber criminal no longer has a single target to attack. As far as I’m aware, blockchain is immune to all of the conventional cyber threats that corporations are scared of.

What happens when you put blockchain and P2P insurance together?

In December, I published a two-part article on Peer 2 Peer Insurance (here are Part 1 and Part 2). When you put the P2P model together with the blockchain, this creates the potential for a near-autonomous, self-regulated insurance business model for managing policy and claims.

Last year, Joshua Davis wrote an interesting white paper called “Peer to Peer Insurance on the Ethereum Blockchain.” He presents the theory behind blockchain and the creation of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO). These are corporate entities with no human employees.

The DAOs would be created for groups of policyholders, similar to the P2P group model with the likes of Guevara and Friendsurance. No single body or organization would control the DAO; it would be equally “controlled” by policyholders within each group. All premiums paid would create a pool of capital to pay claims.

And because this is a self-governing group with little or no overhead, any float at the end of the year would be distributed back among the policyholders. Arguably, this makes the DAO a non-profit organization and materially increases the capital reserve for claims costs.

The big question mark for this model is regulation. There still is no answer to who will maintain the blockchain code within each DAO when regulations change. But, what does seem a dead certainty is that someone, somewhere is figuring out how to solve this.

Blockchain offers the potential for new products and services in a P2P insurance model. It should also open insurance to new markets, especially those on or near the poverty line.

For now, we must watch to see what comes from the likes of Dynamis, which is using smart contracts to provide supplementary employment insurance cover on Ethereum.

Innovation will come from new players

It has been my belief for some time that, in the main, incumbent insurance firms will not be able to materially innovate from within. As with Fintech, the innovation that will radically change this industry will come from new entrants and start-up players, such as:

Dynamis

SmartContract

Rootstock

Everledger (see previous article on Daily Fintech)

Tradle

Ethereum Frontier

Codius (Ripple Labs) (update: Codius discontinued)

This is particularly true with blockchain in insurance. These new age pioneers are unencumbered by corporate process, finance committees, bureaucracy and organizational resistance to change.

Besides, the incumbent insurance CIOs have heard this all before. For decades, software vendors have promised nirvana with new policy administration, claims and product engines. So, why should they listen to the claims that blockchain is the panacea for their legacy IT issues? But,  that is a subject for another post … watch this space!