In much the same way unconventional production has disrupted the global energy industry, industry leaders believe digital technologies also will impact the oil and gas industry’s workforce.
Technological innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, automation and robotics are gaining an increasingly larger stake in all sectors of the industry, and fear is creeping in that just about all of us might be, if not replaceable, severely disrupted in our professions. Regardless of your job tasks, it probably doesn’t take too much of an imagination to picture a robot performing the same task at least as well.
But smart machines are likely just another brick in the industrial evolutionary wall. Future generations may look back on this information age and perceive it as the latest in a line of revolutions brought on by technological innovations in much the same way as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
While writing this month’s cover story—“Upgrading the industry in the information age”—I talked with several companies, including BP and Devon, which addressed the impacts that the move to digitalization will have on the industry’s workforce.
“Every time there has been a big inflection point in technology in the world, there’s always been this fear,” Devon Energy CIO Ben Williams said. “It has never ended up with fewer jobs on the other end of these industrial transformations. We do not expect there to be fewer people in the workforce, but I for sure envision many of the jobs that even our most senior technical people do are going to be influenced by these highly available and very effective technologies. The workforce of the future is not the same as the workforce of today.”
In many cases, such technologies are taking people out of dangerous situations, enhancing their safety in risky environments and improving their training. Inspection work in oil and gas, for example, is a particularly risky task.
“It’s quite conceivable most people would rather not be dangling from a rope and collecting data but instead have the knowledge and skills to now operate the devices that are actually doing that,” said Dave Truch, BP technology director. “What we are seeing is a shift in the evolution of work.”
The current environment has resulted in a co-worker concept in which autonomous machines serve as co-workers to humans, he said. BP Technology Principal Blaine Tookey believes that rather than being replaced, workers will be “upgraded,” much like a smartphone’s operating system, with the latest wearable technologies like exoskeletons and holographic lenses.
At the heart of the man versus machine dynamic lies an ethical issue. Will humans really create the devices of their own professional demise? Thankfully, there is a heightened awareness of such a danger. Organizations like Future of Life—which counts, among other notables, Elon Musk on its advisory board—work to ensure AI and machine learning do what we want them to do and not the other way around.
Dyan Gibbens, CEO of drone company Trumbull Unmanned, said in situations where digital technologies might replace—not displace—human workers, it’s important to incorporate a sense of ethics from inception. “If robotics were a cake, digital ethics must be baked in and not sprinkled on afterward,” she said.