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Ping An's Castle Made Of Data

China’s largest private-sector company built an empire around safe and staid products like life insurance. Now it’s betting its future on inventive uses of big data—and gearing up to do battle with fastgrowing tech giants like Alibaba.

Clay Chandler
FENDER BENDERS, EVEN MINOR ONES, used to mean interminable hassle for Chinese drivers. One could wait hours by the roadside for an insurance inspector—then lose hours more filling out forms. Reimbursement took days, and often weeks.

In 2017, Ping An, China’s second-largest insurer and its biggest non-state-owned company by revenue, rolled out a “Superfast Onsite Investigation” system—enabling policyholders to submit claims by simply opening a smartphone app and answering a few questions. But the app’s niftiest feature offers the option to not even wait for an inspector. Instead, customers can snap photos of a damaged vehicle and send them to a Ping An computer, which can respond with a repair estimate in three minutes or less. If the customer accepts the estimate, then wancheng! (“Done!”) Ping An can transfer funds immediately.

Last year, Ping An’s customers used this feature to settle 7.3 million claims, or 62% of the total. The service saves the company more than $750 million each year by reducing bogus claims and human error. But its simplicity belies the extraordinary sophistication of the artificial intelligence and data processing operations that make it possible.

To generate accurate estimates, Ping An matches photos of vehicle damage against a database of 25 million parts used in the 60,000 different auto makes and models sold in China. The system assesses whether those parts can be repaired or must be replaced, then calculates the cost of parts and labor in more than 140,000 garages. Ping An integrates all that information with face-, voice- and image-recognition tech and a complex matrix of anti-fraud rules. Ping An chief scientist Xiao Jing says it took a team of A.I. experts, data scientists, and insurance managers three years to design, develop, and integrate the new service. It is, he exults, “the only one of its kind in the world.”

But automated auto inspection is only one of myriad marvels that illustrate how Ping An is using A.I. and big data to transform everyday life in China. There’s also the facial-recognition technology the Shenzhen-based conglomerate uses in its consumer lending business; Ping An claims its A.I. can read 54 distinct “micro-expressions” to determine whether loan applicants are lying. Or take Ping An Healthcare and Technology, better known as Good Doctor, which offers consultations to 265 million patients registered via a mobile app—and aids physicians in diagnosing thousands of ailments. Over the past five years, Ping An has also built its own cloud and designed a suite of A.I.-driven software services to go with it—not just to support its own work but also to market services to thousands of smaller financial institutions, hospitals, and medical clients.

These products and services have a vital feature in common: They match online data, generated by China’s digitally native consumer masses, with a vast storehouse of “offline” data and insight amassed over three decades in the insurance business. Ping An believes that this offline information—which encompasses elements as disparate as business-loan default rates, symptoms of skin cancer, and the resale value of a car with sprung shocks—means that its data services are based on better data. “That’s where our advantage comes in,” says Jessica Tan, the deputy CEO who oversees Ping An’s technology companies. “We’re able to connect to the full picture.”

Such connection is central to the vision of Ping An’s hard-charging founder and CEO, Peter Ma. Ma built a massive business around an array of life, health, and property and casualty insurance. Ping An’s insurance arm now reaches 184 million customers and accounted for the bulk of the company’s $164 billion in revenue in 2018. Growth in those relatively staid industries is slowing as China’s economy matures. But they are generating the massive flows of cash and data Ping An needs to build its tech arsenal. Ping An’s leadership foresees the day when the company’s technology businesses contribute as much as half of its earnings, up from only 6% today, and compete head-to-head with pure technology plays like Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings.

Giant financial services companies rarely double as disruptive innovators. Ping An’s very name, which means “peace and safety,” evokes warm milk and an early bedtime. Yet Ping An has already spawned a menagerie of proprietary technologies that support the group’s five key “ecosystems”: finance, health care, autos, real estate, and smart cities. Meanwhile, its online financial and health care services, some sold under its own brand and some licensed to others, now boast more than 565 million registered users.

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August 2019