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Economy

How artificial intelligence will transform the economy

Artificial intelligence is widely regarded as revolutionary progress. We have already seen the advent of train control systems capable of determining when the next maintenance interval is due. And, in the healthcare segment, apparently there are AI robots that can assist nursing staff in hospitals with providing care to their patients. Of all the technological advances that have sprung up as a result of digitalisation, artificial intelligence is the one that is most likely to revolutionise our operations, production processes and consumer behaviour.

Many researchers believe the impact of artificial intelligence will be as disruptive as the invention of the steam engine and the internet. Application-oriented artificial intelligence and machine learning involve a host of technologies and processes. They enable machines to understand a given situation, to learn new things, to predict events, and to act with (almost) no human intervention. This will result in a multitude of uses in many different sectors of the economy – including the insurance industry.

Artificial intelligence complements human labour and increases productivity

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Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, the global real trend growth rate, i.e. growth across a full economic cycle, saw a ten-year average decline from 3.9% to a present 3.1% per year. Many believe this weak growth is the “new normal” and will need getting used to in future, one of the main reasons being that labour productivity has been dropping for years. Yet innovation and technological progress may in fact reverse this negative trend by helping to promote more efficient use of labour and capital.

Unlike other technological advances, artificial intelligence can not only replace human labour, it can also complement it. In medicine, doctors, for instance, can carry out diagnoses using intelligent digital assistants that sift through huge medical knowledge data bases.

Insurance market to benefit from artificial intelligence

Experts agree that automation and robotics in general, and artificial intelligence in particular, will lead to a rise in labour productivity. But their opinions deviate considerably when it comes to the magnitude of the growth effects. The main reason for this is that it is difficult to estimate when the new technologies will become fully utilisable, and to what extent which activities can be replaced. It is also unclear which new jobs are likely to be created by artificial intelligence.

A very optimistic study conducted by Accenture and Frontier Economics has projected that by 2035 artificial intelligence will trigger a 10–40% increase in labour productivity in eleven western industrialised countries and Japan. If we are to believe the authors of this study, economic growth in the aforementioned countries will thus double by 2035 thanks to the widespread use of artificial intelligence. Even those who do not share this optimism can safely assume that there will be positive growth effects.

The insurance industry too is expected to receive positive impulses from artificial intelligence – and not only from purely macroeconomic stimuli. New products are already being developed around artificial intelligence – for instance, covers for driverless cars, smart factories, smart sensors and losses attributable to cyber crime. Artificial intelligence will also be used in internal underwriting and claims analysis processes, and in asset and risk management. By way of example, property damage assessment in mass business could be automated with the help of imaging technology and with a much greater level of detail than previously possible. Likewise, investment decisions could be taken even more rapidly and on a more informed basis than before thanks to the analysis of large quantities of unstructured data.

Workplace set for fundamental change

Artificial intelligence is said to be the first technology that will pose a large-scale threat to office jobs. Now that automation and robotisation have jeopardised traditional blue-collar jobs, the tasks performed by academics are also beginning to be called into question. This subject has been analysed in studies that have examined the different tasks performed by human beings at their workplaces. According to a study conducted by McKinsey Global Institutes, there is high automation potential in the hotel and restaurant industry and in manufacturing. In the education and care services sector, by contrast, the share of automatable tasks is relatively small. The financial sector has medium automation potential.

Does this mean there will be a significant rise in unemployment if these tasks are performed by intelligent machines in the future? Structural changes in the economy are a historical constant. Nevertheless (or perhaps precisely for this reason), prosperity has risen continuously, and human beings have always found new fields of activity. The OECD projects that, while around 9% of all jobs in developed countries have a high probability of being lost to automation, many new positions will be created. The introduction and further development of artificial intelligence in all areas of life will lead to a huge spike in demand for IT and other specialists. Moreover, the replacement of human labour by artificial intelligence will often be rejected on economic and social grounds. And creative activities, and those that require a high degree of social interaction, e.g. designers and kindergarten teachers, will presumably become more important in an increasingly digitalised world.

Life-long learning and IT know-how will become indispensable

Nevertheless, changes will be inevitable, and the importance of life-long training will continue to grow. If a physician carries out diagnoses with the help of artificial intelligence going forward, he will not only need medical expertise but also more IT know-how. The expectations of general education programmes will therefore also rise. This means that individuals will have computers do repetitive tasks for them, whilst they can concentrate on the more creative ones.

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Average annual hours worked per worker, G7 countries, 1950–2015
With Artificial Intelligence, the trend towards a decrease in hours worked should continue in developed economies 

In addition, the use of artificial intelligence and the productivity increases associated with this will most probably lead to a rise in real salaries. The same value added will be delivered using less human labour, resulting in an overall decline in the weekly number of hours worked. Hence, if artificial intelligence lives up to expectations, prosperity is likely to rise and the trend towards a decrease in hours worked should continue in most of the world’s developed economies.

Given the profound changes that will occur as a result of the expansion of artificial intelligence, some very fundamental, ethical questions have been raised, and these will need to be addressed by politicians, economists and society as a whole.

Munich Re Experts
Alexander Dietrich
is an economist specialising in the analysis of economic and insurance market topics.
Susanne Gäde
is an economist at Munich Re and is responsible for issues related to monetary policy, financial market regulation and capital markets.
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