Artificial intelligence (AI) has captivated the imagination of science-fiction movie audiences for many years and has been used in the upstream oil and gas industry for more than a decade (Mohaghegh 2005, 2011). But few industries evolve more quickly than those from Silicon Valley, and it accordingly follows that the technology has grown and changed considerably since this discussion began. The oil and gas industry, therefore, is at a point where it would be prudent to take stock of what has been achieved with AI in the sector, to provide a sober assessment of what has delivered value and what has not among the myriad implementations made so far, and to figure out how best to leverage this technology in the future in light of these learnings.
When one looks at the long arc of AI in the oil and gas industry, a few important truths emerge. First among these is the fact that not all AI is the same. There is a spectrum of technological sophistication. Hollywood and the media have always been fascinated by the idea of artificial superintelligence and general intelligence systems capable of mimicking the actions and behaviors of real people. Those kinds of systems would have the ability to learn, perceive, understand, and function in human-like ways (Joshi 2019). As alluring as these types of AI are, however, they bear little resemblance to what actually has been delivered to the upstream industry. Instead, we mostly have seen much less ambitious “narrow AI” applications that very capably handle a specific task, such as quickly digesting thousands of pages of historical reports (Kimbleton and Matson 2018), detecting potential failures in progressive cavity pumps (Jacobs 2018), predicting oil and gas exports (Windarto et al. 2017), offering improvements for reservoir models (Mohaghegh 2011), or estimating oil-recovery factors (Mahmoud et al. 2019).
But let’s face it: As impressive and commendable as these applications have been, they fall far short of the ambitious vision of highly autonomous systems that are capable of thinking about things outside of the narrow range of tasks explicitly handed to them. What is more, many of these narrow AI applications have tended to be modified versions of fairly generic solutions that were originally designed for other industries and that were then usefully extended to the oil and gas industry with a modest amount of tailoring. In other words, relatively little AI has been occurring in a way that had the oil and gas sector in mind from the outset.
The second important truth is that human judgment still matters. What some technology vendors have referred to as “augmented intelligence” (Kimbleton and Matson 2018), whereby AI supplements human judgment rather than sup-plants it, is not merely an alternative way of approaching AI; rather, it is coming into focus that this is probably the most sensible way forward for this technology.