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  • Duncan McLachlan

new technology, are you aware of the risks?

Updated: May 28, 2021

To many it seems as if the rate of change of technology is accelerating, and people are starting to claim that it is posing an increasing challenge to business[1]. It doesn’t stop there, Elon Musk claims artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, he was recently quoted as saying unregulated AI is more of a threat than North Korea[2]. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg claims Elon Musk’s statements are “irresponsible”[3]. We have also seen Facebook switch off some AI research when two AI chatbots started to communicate in their own language[4], albeit the language was found to be functional gibberish[5]. They may not have been switched off due to safety concerns, but it was enough for some to set off comparisons with Skynet from the Terminator movies. These concerns and fears for the oil & gas industry can seem somewhat abstract; surely, as the fourth industrial revolution continues apace, there can only be positive benefits for the sector.

Like most things, there are positives and negatives to balance with the technological advances being adopted by the oil & gas industry. To focus only on the positive and ignore the negative is a foolhardy attitude to the risks and uncertainties, and will most likely be counterproductive. At io, we start with the end in mind, which is to create value and certainty for our clients and their field developments. To do this, we take a holistic view, balancing the positive and negative aspects of new technologies.

Consider sensors, the advances in sensor technology, combined with the big data revolution and enhanced interconnectivity, has seen the industrial internet of things (IIOT) take off. The IIOT is a key constituent in the advances coming to the oil & gas industry, whether it is using big data analytics to bring operational efficiency, the establishment of a digital twin, or combining both with AI to create a fully autonomous, self-optimising oil field.

This is not without risk that needs to be managed. Firstly, we need to consider how to use the available technology to capture data in such a way that it becomes and remains useful. Without a clear strategy for the ways in which the technology will be used, it is very easy to capture huge amounts of unstructured data and potentially create an unmanageable data swamp. The prospective value of the data is therefore eroded by the lack of a coherent strategy. io’s approach of starting with the end in mind means that the digital strategy we develop will be focussed on the end product, and the data we collect will be structured such that it can serve that end. Even when this includes an uncertain end, to stay open to future possibilities, we will ensure the data is captured, structured and stored in such a way that it can serve future requirements.

The second negative offered by the IIOT is the potential for hackers to use the electronic network to take control of an operating asset. This can range from the malicious, to financially motivated ransomware, to potential acts of ecoterrorism. As recently as 2016, the Mirai malware saw the internet of things be used to bring down web services such as Twitter and Reddit with a distributed denial of service attack[6]. This exploited many devices having a default, factory set password, which was easily identified. Learning this lesson, we can see how information security in an industrial setting needs to be far more stringent; this extends from the individual sensors to the network connecting them to the data repositories, and also includes the education of the human factors in this area to ensure that human error does not open technology to the new risks inherent in the digital world.

Another area to consider is the cognitive effect of removing the human from the immediate high-risk work location. At first sight, using augmented and virtual reality to allow humans to guide robots performing dangerous or high-risk tasks from a remote location is the ultimate safety improvement. However, automation does not remove the human from the oil field, it simply changes the human’s role within it; and it does not remove risk, it changes and generates new risks. We can look to several other industries who have extensive experience of this. For example, recent research has shown that over reliance on technology results in more accidents: analysis of flight data by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) identified an increased number of manual errors and concluded continuous use of autopilot could lead to degradation of a pilot’s ability to recover the aircraft from an undesired state. It recommended that to reduce the reliance on auto pilot systems, aircraft companies incorporate an emphasis on manual flight operations into training and line operations[7].

Distraction has a well known impact on driving safety: mobile phones, satellite navigation devices and in-car entertainment all divert attention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report 17% of US vehicle accidents involve distraction. It issued Driver Distraction Guidelines to vehicle manufacturers suggesting a “driver mode” be included in new vehicles, which prevents operation of some electronic equipment[8]. Further to this, it is not just distraction that presents a safety risk to road users, in his book: The World Beyond Your Head How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, philosopher and mechanic, Matthew Crawford, proposes an interesting link between “disconnection” and safety: modern cars simulate reality, they artificially replicate physical pressure on a brake pad and the noise an engine should make in response to your driving; what they don’t do is enable you to experience the road directly and therefore they have deskilled the driver[9].

Counterintuitively, research into disconnection has led to improvements in road safety being made by making roads appear more dangerous. Rutgers professor Robert Noland determined that wider lanes were responsible for approximately 900 extra traffic fatalities each year (comparing 1997 to 1985): when you are driving down a wide, straight road with a generous buffer on all sides, you are more likely to exceed the speed limit[10]. Similarly, in London, sections of three roads had their white lines removed and found a "statistically significant reduction in vehicle speeds.”[11]

By automating the oil field and moving operators from the immediate “danger zone” it can make huge improvement to known risks. However, learnings from other areas suggest new risks will likely be introduced: reliance on the automated operation and potential degradation of emergency response capabilities, and disconnection from the task at hand - a warm, relatively safe office is far more pleasant to work in than the hostile environment offshore in the North Sea but it brings a risk of disconnecting operators from the criticality of the task at hand.

Undoubtedly, the fourth industrial revolution offers huge potential to the oil & gas industry; it opens a world of possibility in terms of safety, productivity and efficiency. Nevertheless, no advance comes without a cost and technology is no different. Any digital transformation strategy looking to leverage the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution must be comprehensive and must identify and mitigate the negative. At io, we do this by remembering the hard learned lessons of our industry’s past alongside equally hard lessons from other industries; we also look to other sectors and their use of technology, whether that be cutting edge tech giants like Elon Musk, Google and Facebook or the military, aerospace and behavioural psychology worlds. This know how is all applied through io’s risk and uncertainty philosophy to ensure we bring optimised value and certainty to our client’s projects without an unexpected negative side effect.

To find out how io can help you establish a digital strategy maximising the positive while reducing the shadow side, contact us at

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] Crawford, Matthew B. (2015), The World Beyond Your Head How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, Viking, Great Britain. [10] [11]


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