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Quick claims

Could artificial intelligence replace insurance claims adjusters?

Your insurance agent may not have been replaced by a computer, but artificial intelligence (AI) may soon take over one of the most critical jobs in the insurance business: accident and disaster appraisal.

Tractable, a London-based startup, is using machine learning to train an AI system to conduct visual damage assessment with the goal of speeding up insurance payouts and access to governmental disaster relief funds.

“Our belief is that when accidents and disasters hit, the response could be 10 times faster thanks to AI,” Alexandre Dalyac, Tractable CEO and co-founder, told TechCrunch. “Everything from road accidents, burst piping to large-scale floods and hurricane.”

The traditional process of releasing claims funds after an automobile accident, for example, begins with a visual damage appraisal by an experienced claims adjuster, a process that can take days or weeks. Tractable claims its AI, which was trained on millions of images of vehicle damage, can do the same job in minutes. It works by policyholders sending photos of the damage to their insurance company, which can then use Tractable’s AI program to instantly estimate the repair cost.

Dalyac conceded that it’s a difficult machine learning problem to correlate exterior photos with internal damage, something an experienced human adjuster can do easily.

“Our AI has already been trained on tens of millions of these cases, so that’s a perfect case of us already having distilled thousands of people’s work experience,” he said. “That allows us to get hold of some very challenging correlations that humans just can’t do.”

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An autonomous shuttle used in downtown Minneapolis (MnDOT)


Carpool future

Self-driving cars may soon be in the ride-sharing business

What’s the future of personal transportation? The car industry is betting heavily that it involves driverless vehicles and ride-sharing. Major carmakers are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle research and development ($60 billion this year, reports Investor’s Business Daily), with General Motors planning to roll out its autonomous vehicles next year and Ford by 2021.

Yet, Americans still aren’t that interested in driverless cars. A recent survey by online insurer Esurance found that 83 percent had little or no interest in relinquishing driving to a computer. In a 2017 MIT study, nearly half of 3,000 people surveyed said they would never buy a fully autonomous car.

But carmakers don’t envision selling driverless cars primarily to individuals. They’re deploying fleets of driverless vehicles in the hope that consumers will gradually accept the concept of driverless taxis as a way of saving time and money. An Esurance study found that trading car ownership for ride-sharing could save a household up to $4,100 a year.

Driverless ride-sharing could save time as well. Analysis has shown that drivers spend 17 hours every year just looking for a parking space. Driverless ride-sharing could radically reduce the need for urban parking. Cities anticipating a shift to driverless technology, such as San Francisco and Chandler, Ariz. (a Phoenix suburb), are already converting parking spaces into parks, according to MIT Technology Review.

Despite the anticipated benefits, robo-taxi services will have to overcome consumer safety concerns. A recent report by AlixPartners Global Automotive Outlook found that large majorities of consumers had concerns about hardware and software malfunctions and vulnerability of autonomous vehicles to hacking.

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Space-age slingshot

Startup hopes to launch satellites using a catapult 

Big players in the aerospace and technology sectors are now major investors in a radically new approach to launching small payloads into outer space: space catapult.

SpinLaunch Inc., a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2014, recently announced it had raised $40 million, in part from venture capital firms affiliated with Airbus and Google.

“We are very intrigued by SpinLaunch’s innovative use of rotational kinetic energy to revolutionize the smallsat market,” said Wen Hsieh, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, another investor, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Since the dawn of space flight, large booster rockets have been the only way to launch payloads into orbit. SpinLaunch would use an electromagnetically powered centrifuge to accelerate a small rocket containing a payload to speeds approaching 5,000 miles per hour. The launcher would then release the rocket, allowing its momentum to carry it into orbit.

Catapulting a payload into orbit could be more efficient than using conventional rocket boosters, which require large amounts of fuel. In a conventional rocket launch, typical payloads constitute less than 5 percent of the launch vehicle’s total mass. A catapult system could radically lower the cost per launch.

“SpinLaunch is targeting a per launch price of less than $500,000,” founder Jonathan Yaney told technology website Techcrunch. “All existing rocket-based companies cost between $5 million and $100 million per launch.”

Yaney claims the “core technology has been developed, prototyped, [and] tested,” and says the major challenges will be scaling up and constructing the launch systems.

Some physicists have cautioned that a potential challenge will be overcoming the resistance of the atmosphere once the catapult launches its payload. Still, some aerospace experts unaffiliated with the project have come away impressed.

“It’s a very good approach in my opinion,” Simon “Pete” Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Bloomberg.

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