Canadian Underwriter

When humans team up with machines, P&C innovation wins

May 4, 2021   by David Gambrill

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Debates about whether humans or computers are at the centre of innovative insurance products are a red herring — the best way to build an insurance product is an integrated approach using the best of what humans and machines have to offer.

“The lesson is to outsource [to computers] the part of human expertise most easily replaced and empower humans to do what they do best — strategic thinking and creative thought,” Alex Plenits, an innovation consultant at Onova, said in a keynote address at The Insurance Institute of Canada’s StudentHack 2021 Event on Monday.

StudentHack 2021, a virtual presentation, crowned the winner among the Top 5 teams emerging out of a national competition involving 27 teams, 96 students, and 22 schools across Canada. The competition was hosted by Cookhouse Labs, a centre that promotes creative technological solutions in the P&C insurance industry.

Plenits told the story of international chess master Gary Kasparaov, who famously lost a 1996 chess match to a computer, Deep Blue, causing Kasparaov to remark that he may have been the first human to be at risk of losing his job to a computer. Following his loss in 1998, Kasparov organized the first freestyle chess tournament in which teams could be made up of humans and computers working together.

In 2005 tournament play, Plenits said, “something remarkable happened.”

Amateurs totally unknown to the high-level chess scene, teaming up with three normal computers, were able to defeat the best chest supercomputer at the time, as well as teams of Grand Master chess players. Kasparavov figured the humans in the winning team were the best at coaching multiple computers about what to examine and then synthesizing the computers’ information to come up with a winning strategy.

In StudentHack 2021, Trevor Buttrum, manager of Career Connections at The Insurance Institute of Canada, emphasized the “human element” is a critical part of using artificial intelligence strategically to promote technological breakthroughs in the P&C industry.

“The insurance industry in particular is a people-driven business,” Buttrum said. “It’s about relationships and understanding the needs of each of the stakeholders. I think you know that if we inspire the human element in our innovative process, we’re really making sure that that remains a core element of how we drive the business forward.”

Sven Roehl, co-founder of Cookhouse Labs, added that not only is the human element an important part of innovation, but the experience and knowledge to create new insurance products already resides within the P&C industry.

“The reason why we found the Cookhouse Labs years ago is that we believe there are many experts in the industry,” Roehl said. “I mean, now [in the 2021 Hackathon], we’re talking to students who we want to attract to become the next experts in the industry. We believe…we do not always need to have the external help. We already have the knowledge and experience in the industry.”

Winning first prize — and $1,000 — was ‘The Jedis,’ made up of Aaroh Singh, Shreya Gupta, and Tanmaya Raj Sagar. They designed a home insurance app, InsuraConnect, that integrates data from all the smart devices connected in the home. The app monitors the health and effectiveness of the devices, which collect data on exposures to heat (fire sensors), water (water sensors), theft (door locks), among other things, and issues notifications to the homeowner when maintenance is required, thereby reducing their risk of a claim.

It also educates homeowners about their coverage by simplifying the terms and conditions of their policies.


Feature photo courtesy of


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