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Bill Maddock, Director of Subsea Systems Institute

Energy, Artificial Intelligence & Robotics: The Future of People in Energy Production

By Valeria Dominguez


Four experts on artificial intelligence gathered at the University of Houston to discuss the future of robotics in the energy industry.

UH Energy’s fourth and last energy symposium for 2017-18 featured robotics experts Rasheed Haq, global head of AI, robotics and data engineering for Sapient Consulting; Julia Badger, project manager for robonaut and autonomous spacecraft management projects at NASA-Johnson Space Center; Michael “Mickey” Frish, manager of industrial sensors at Physical Sciences; and David Reid, chief marketing officer at National Oilwell Varco.

“The big push has been from artificial intelligence and robotics as the key driver for change in energy. Many people think this is all hype and many decades away,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy office at UH, said to open the symposium. “A significant contrarian, Elon Musk, has come out and said in the next five years you are going to get this exposure to artificial intelligence and it’s going to transform the world.”

Krishnamoorti said the AI energy debate brings up questions about ethics, regulations, safety, reliability and cyber-resilience in the industry.

Haq opened the discussion by addressing common ways AI and robotics are used in the energy industry and how this affects people working in energy production. Shell Oil Company already uses AI as a virtual assistant when selling specific products to other businesses, he said, while the shipping industry uses AI for oil trading and predicting routes their ships will travel.

Technology’s impact on industry isn’t new, Haq said. “People lost jobs a long time ago,” he said. “Those who were driving people in horse carriages lost their jobs due to the automation of cars. However, (new) jobs have been created around the car industry, such as gas stations or car maintenance.”

He said that, historically, every time a technology shift has occurred, there are more new jobs by automation than are lost. Haq predicted that due improved efficiency thanks to AI, by 2030 the U.S. will have a three-day weekend.

Julia Badger, project manager for robonaut and autonomous spacecraft at NASA, said artificial intelligence and robotics are important for the future in space.

Badger works with robonauts – what she calls an upper-body humanoid meant to help astronauts in space. Although the applications for robotics are different in space than in the energy industry, both industries face similar problems in dealing with the developing technologies.

“I think the space industry has great parallels to what is happening in the energy industry. When you don’t want to send people to certain environments, you can have a tool (artificial intelligence) that can have the abilities a human body has, while you have your brain somewhere else,” Badger said.

Frish continued the discussion by talking about the ways in which artificial intelligence is being used with drones to detect gas leaks. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, the technology he has worked on was used to find leaks in inaccessible areas.

Reid closed the discussion by touching on how AI impacts drilling and wells. In drilling, for example, it has improved the precision of drilling and hydraulic fracturing. He predicted much more to come for AI in the oil industry.

“If you’re planning on being here tomorrow, it’s good to actually plan on what that might be like and start thinking about what the future can bring,” Reid said.