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Digitalisation can ‘amplify’ oil & gas operator bias

Technology can bring huge benefits, but the human aspect of implementation could be the most problematic factor

The digitalisation of oil and gas exploration and production processes often bring huge efficiency gains. But the industry needs to be aware that unconscious bias in implementation can result in major consequences. Unwitting errors in the creation of algorithms—as they result in repeated errors across systems—are more severe than those made by practitioners of analogue processes. 

“Some technology can actually see [operations] in real time, so you can quantify what you have and assess what you want to do with it,” says Morag Watson, chief digital innovation officer at BP. “For example, we use a combination of drones, sensors and hyperspectral imagery, so it is very complex. Great algorithms are able to take the data and synthesise it so we can [establish] what is going on, what we need to do and what to prioritise.” 

Digital technology facilitates making decisions much more rapidly by relying on algorithms to coordinate multiple data sources. While they reduce the potential for day-to-day human error, they have the potential to engrain and mask problems.   

Bias is a “big topic” according to Watson. “It is something that we have to think carefully about—we all have biases. On the plus side, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data solves challenges. Yes, the data has bias in it, but the good news is that it is explicit.

“The bad news is it is now amplified. As soon as you have got an algorithm that will run something many times, you make it available to a wider audience. You have suddenly got to think about this not only in your customer-employee space, as it is [just as important on the] technical side because there is bias in modelling. When developing sub-surface models, you have the cognitive biases of whoever created it—it is their interpretation.”

“For the next five years it is all about data,” Chetan Desai

Relying on digital systems means the role of the industry professionals overseeing it is even more important. Overdependency on these [potentially] biased systems and analysis can lead us to a situation where the information that we put in, and therefore get out, becomes a problem,” says Abdul Nasser Al Mughairbi, digital senior vice president at the executive office of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil firm Adnoc. “People can over-trust algorithms. There is a danger from removing the human element from the equation.”

Digitalisation has huge benefits and allows tasks that humans cannot do alone to be easily be achieved, according to Al Mughairbi. "We are able to use cameras with different spectrums to search, to look for emissions, to measure flaring and much more. The need to see no longer means you need a human being. A camera might see deeper, further and more clearly or do geological X-rays. If we use AI, we might be able to analyse a thousand [pictures] per day.”

The speed of innovation and technological adoption is being held up, according to Al Mughairbi, by companies needing to find an edge on their rivals. [The industry does] not collaborate well with each other because of [the need to gain a] competitive advantage. There has to be a time when we start doing data on a shared basis, helping each other to reach that step quicker.”

The trend of digitalisation is unlikely to slow. “For the next five years it is all about data,” says Chetan Desai, vice president digital at oilfield services heavyweight Schlumberger. “Across the industry, [advancements] are all predicated on doing something fundamentally different with data.”

“The ability for us to connect digital technologies to the transition and the sustainability of the industry… is all about efficiency,” he says. “For me, cybersecurity should be top-of-mind for the industry. This landscape is getting more complex, not less.”

The human aspect to digitalisation can also be a major issue when it comes to implementation. Change management “is probably a much bigger challenge than making the technology work”, says Desai. “It's not only the physical implementation,” agrees Al Mughairbi, “70pc of the effort goes toward changing the culture of the business. People do not want to change so we have to make the case for change."

The speakers appeared at Oil & Money in London in October


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