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My Thoughts on the New Digitalisation

Peter Ma founded Ping An Insurance, China’s first private joint-stock insurance company, in 1988, when he was 33 years old. The former start-up is now one of the world’s largest insurers, a leader across financial services in China and a pioneer in new technologies from fintech to cloud. As the company celebrates its 33rd anniversary, Peter shares his thoughts on digitalisation in a message to colleagues.

A cognitive revolution

I believe that digitalisation is fundamental to human progress and productivity. It’s more than a technological transformation, though. It’s sparking a cognitive revolution, radically changing the way we think and behave.

Peter Ma, Founder of Ping An insurance, China's first joint-stock insurance company

Digital technology allows us to make a series of quantum leaps in cognition. It means we can develop surface-level knowledge or deeper insights, study isolated phenomena or discover connected patterns, progress from sensory awareness to rational understanding, and reject subjective bias to make truly science-led decisions. Simply put, digitalisation has raised to a new level humans’ ability to understand the world, grasp the underlying principles that govern it and make more intelligent decisions.

This shift has been driven by three major disruptive characteristics of digitalisation:

Computing power. Digitalisation enables us to process massive amounts of unstructured data, enhancing our understanding of complex issues.

Cognitive ability. Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning mean machines have surpassed the cognitive abilities of humans in a variety of areas.

Big data. The breadth and depth of the data available to us are growing exponentially thanks to big data technology. We have an unprecedented store of information at our disposal.

The value of digitalisation to society

Digitalisation means we can analyse human activity according to consistent frameworks that were not available to us before. To know the truth, it is often said, one must first learn from experience.

New technologies also allow us to discover unknown and complex associations in human developments, helping us to more fully realise the Confucian wisdom in the statement that, “Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning.” (物有本末,事有终始).

Through knowledge graphs and complex neural networks, digital technology has changed our understanding of causality and the relationship between phenomena. It enables us to go beyond isolated chains of cause and effect to perceive multi-dimensional networks of association.

That has profound implications for the accuracy of causal modelling in medical diagnosis, among other fields. For example, the traditional process for diagnosing diabetes took into account several pathogenic factors — but Ping An’s technology can locate more than 50 health risk factors, over 300 related diseases or symptoms and more than 2,000 relevant drugs.

Some 2,300 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Mencius said: "Although the sky is so high and the stars so distant, if we seek out [their] original condition, we can calculate a solstice a thousand years ahead without rising from our seats." The ancients recognised the existence of laws governing the natural world and people’s behaviour. Because of digitalisation, though, we can better understand these phenomena and predict their future.

This knowledge acquires the greatest value when it is applied in practice. As the Ming dynasty statesman and philosopher Wang Yangming said: “Study the underlying principle to acquire knowledge and apply knowledge to practice” (格物致知,知行合一). Human cognition is an iterative process of repeated and infinite deepening, though. And since we cannot fully understand our complex world, it’s inevitable that personal experience has a lopsided, distorting influence on what we do.

Through digitalisation, however, humans can make more scientific decisions. Machine learning helps. Take AskBob, Ping An’s AI-driven smart doctor assistant, for example. It does better than specialists in China’s leading hospitals in terms of the accuracy and speed with which it can diagnose certain illnesses.

The value of digitalisation to business

Smart data analysis can help a business see what is essential in a complicated environment — and make the right decisions in advance. Digitalisation enables Ping An to compile our annual report in 34 days, for example, giving us a head start in developing our strategy.

Indeed, technology helps businesses optimise all kinds of processes, replacing or reducing manual work through automation — and reducing costs. Ping An’s rapid auto insurance claim solution provides a good example: customers can make claims on a mobile application within three minutes by taking photos of their cars. This fully digital, automated process is made possible by AI that has learned images of 60,000 types of vehicle and 24m parts and components.

Risk, too, can be managed more effectively through the early analysis of financial, business and behavioural data, supported by precision monitoring and AI. We have used cognitive AI technology at our consumer finance arm, Ping An Puhui, to reduce credit losses by 33 per cent, for example. AI also helps us achieve a more personal relationship with our 220m customers via digital channels. Human labour alone couldn’t deliver our service standards to such a vast customer base.

Digitalisation will continue to disrupt all areas of life in the 21st century. Sitting in my office, I’m always worried about falling behind and becoming obsolete in the digital age, when the market competition will only grow more brutal and winners will take all. We have to remain vigilant and alert to the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead to continue our sustainable development.

A full version of Peter Ma's message is available here