How Sunshine Insurance Group is disrupting the Chinese insurance sector with artificial intelligence

How Sunshine Insurance Group is disrupting the Chinese insurance sector with artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) may be in its infancy but it's set to radically transform the way we do business. As the cutting-edge technology gains more traction, it could be argued that no industry is more ripe for disruption than the data-rich insurance sector where everything from customer service to claims processing has the potential to be enhanced.

A recent study from Tata Consultancy Services reported that the insurance sector has invested $124mn in AI compared to an average of $70mn invested by other industries. In China, Sunshine Insurance Group has emerged as a gleaming example of how insurance firms should ready themselves for this seismic shift.

One person at the helm of Sunshine Group’s AI strategy is Zhenbin Xu, President’s Office and Chief AI Scientist at Sunshine Insurance Group. “The way I look at it, we are at a transition in time in terms of technology,” Xu explains. “If we define an era by its technology then I would say we have been through the PC internet time, then we went through the mobile internet time. Now we are entering what I call the AI or ubiquitous computer era, whereby more and more smart devices are entering people's lives, and AI could be applied to them.” Recognising this paradigm shift, Sunshine Insurance Group has delved deep into what AI could offer the industry.

Xu’s objective is a far-reaching one: he has worked diligently to transform the company into a technology-driven one – enhancing the firm’s culture, management and business model – and he  has also helped to drive the insurance group’s AI and data strategy. Blending both a people-oriented and technology-driven approach, Xu believes that Sunshine Insurance Group is leaving its mark on the sector.

“One of the unique aspects of Sunshine Insurance Group is its strong work culture and vision,” says Xu. “We want to create a financial group that fulfills customers’ multiple needs around financial security and protection. That’s one of the reasons why today Sunshine Insurance Group is extending outside of the core business – insurance is our core business but we also have an internet finance and healthcare function.”

“We are also a very technology-driven company. Sunshine Insurance Group is one of the top insurance companies in China and compared to our peers we are very technology focused and agile. Today there are more smart devices and entry points for people to interact, it is still unclear how insurance companies should adapt to this transition – this has presented an opportunity for Sunshine whereby we can invest in AI with a distinct strategy and product to best serve customers. We see it as a chance to become a market leader.”

It seems that this distinctive approach is paying off: today, Sunshine Insurance Group is frequently cited as a China Top 500 Enterprise and a China Top 100 Service Company by China Enterprise Directors Association (CEDA). Three years after the establishment of its property and casualty company, Sunshine Property and Casualty Insurance Co. Ltd, it has also surpassed 71 competitors to become one of the top eight insurance companies in the region.

Delving into the growing field of AI, Xu is excited for what the future holds. Today Sunshine Insurance Group is exploring the use of virtual agents, voice technologies, image technologies, video technologies, smart devices and natural language processing (NLP) – and this is just the start.

“There are a lot of touch points within our operation where we interact with customers,” Xu adds. “For all the cross points, if you can leverage AI technology, through voice and emotion recognition, face recognition, liveness detection, micro expression analysis, optical character recognition, natural language understanding, knowledge graph and image-based damage assessment, then we can improve the customer experience and speed up the entire process. Customers today expect faster services, more reliable services and more natural ways to interact with our services. Nowadays we can use AI technology to achieve that.”

Leveraging the vast amount of data at its fingertips, Sunshine Insurance Group has also embarked on a pioneering ‘Data Sunshine’ strategy to aid the company’s transition to a more data-driven enterprise. This involved educating the workforce and promoting more data-driven projects.

“We think big data will also allow us to provide more differentiated products to our customers,” comments Xu. “For example, in terms of product pricing, big data definitely helps us give a more accurate service and, in a lot of cases, a much better price to our customers.”

Xu points out that AI and big data could also help to fight against one of the costliest elements of the insurance industry: fraud. By preventing and detecting fraud this will help to reduce the premium for the company’s customers, as overhead costs will be reduced. On top of this, the firm is also tapping into other emerging technologies like blockchain and usage-based insurance (UBI) to stay ahead of the curve.

Sunshine Insurance Group has already proven itself to be a pioneer of new technology although interestingly, the firm is also exploring new sectors and avenues for disruption. Take for example its latest foray into the healthcare sector with the company’s own hospital.

Situated in Weifang City in east China’s Shandong province, Sunshine Union Hospital stands as the country’s first hospital founded by an insurance group. Additionally, in its short history, it has also passed the highest standard of international medical services and management (the Joint Commission International Accreditation Standards for Hospitals, 6th edition).

“With our hospital, I believe we tried to achieve two things: firstly, we tried to figure out how to combine insurance with medical treatment. For example, if you do a health exam at the hospital you can have the data available to the insurance part of the business electronically to speed up underwriting and reduce premium.

“Secondly, we also aimed to build a first-class hospital using smart AI technologies. It is a technology-rich facility: we are exploring the latest AI-enabled digital services and tools to improve the efficiency and the customer friendliness of all hospital operations.”

With such a far-reaching remit, Xu notes that the firm has worked diligently to attract and retain the best talent in the sector, recognising that these people not only need to be well versed in insurance operations, they also need to be technology-savvy individuals so that Sunshine Insurance Group can grow its own technology capabilities internally.

“Today many firms rely on outside companies to provide a technology product for them; the past model doesn't work well in this new AI era,” Xu says. “We have to start to consider how we can develop our own big data and AI capabilities. We need data scientists. We need AI scientists. We need the ability to even produce our own AI product. That is quite a change: it requires a special company culture,” he adds. “Culture is very important because without the right culture you cannot hire the right technology talent.”

Sunshine Insurance Group has come leaps and bounds since it was first founded over a decade ago. Now, Xu believes the firm is upending the insurance sector by becoming an early adopter of AI.

“In the future, our goal is to become the best adapter of AI technology,” he says. “It is truly helping us to improve our customer experience and become a market leader. We’re not just thinking about how we can have better profits – what my team brings to the company is ‘value innovation’. We’re not thinking about what our peers are doing in the Chinese insurance industry. We’re thinking about where society is moving to, how our consumers are changing and how we can serve our customers with best value and quality of service, and basing our strategy on that.”

Zhenbin Xu