By Steve Hamm
One of the great hopes for cognitive computing is that it will provide organizations with powerful new insights that enable them to penetrate complexity and rethink the way they do business—potentially transforming whole industries.
The oil and gas industry is ripe for transformation.
That’s because the uncertainties and geological risks are so great in resource exploration and the pressures are so great to maximize the productivity of existing oil and gas fields—whether they’re on dry land or thousands of feet under the sea.
Repsol S.A., a global energy company with its headquarters in Madrid, Spain, has teamed with IBM in a three-year collaboration to bring cognitive computing to bear on these so-called “upstream” aspects of its business, where energy companies face so much complexity and where decision making is so crucial to their success.
Repsol prospects for oil on five continents, but it faces brutal completion from the industry’s behemoths. So it depends on innovation to help level the playing field. “They have the big budgets and large staffs of employees, so we have to create our advantages based on technology, innovation and talent. Those are our three pillars,” says Santiago Quesada, director of exploration and production technology for Repsol.
Santiago is presenting about the joint project today at IBM’s Cognitive Systems Colloquium at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
IBM Research and Repsol have been working together for years to provide Repsol with an information technology edge, but this collaboration is much deeper than those of the past. Researchers from both sides have melded into a single, virtual team to explore the potential of cognitive computing in the energy industry. They have mapped out two initial applications, one for helping Repsol size up exploration blocks that are out for bid and another that will help it optimize its strategy for drilling wells.
“We have a model based on the principle of open innovation,” says Santiago. “We don’t try to do everything by ourselves. We combine our strengths with those of our innovation partners.”
In recent weeks, the melded Repsol/IBM team has been conducting intensive brainstorming sessions in the Cognitive Environments Laboratory at IBM Research, a multi-media lab designed for enhancing collaboration and decision making.
The lab is the brainchild of Dario Gil, who sees the space as the physical embodiment of the potential of cognitive computing. He believes that in addition to ingesting large amounts of information, making sense of all that data and learning from experiences, cognitive systems must also be capable of interacting with humans in ways that are more natural to us. Indeed, he foresees computing systems and humans collaborating with one another the way humans collaborate with each other today. “A new era of computing demands a new user experience,” Dario says.
The lab is quipped with “ambient” technology, including audio and video equipment that captures everything that happens, touch- and gesture-controlled display screens, and technology that makes it easier to visualize, organize and share information. But much goes on behind the screens, as well. The idea is that business leaders and their technical colleagues will create cognitive software agents called “cogs,” which provide deep computing capabilities that can be combined to build large sophisticated applications. These cogs will be easily accessible not just in the CEL but anywhere and any time via mobile computers and smart phones.
The collaboration with Repsol is the first real-world test for the Cognitive Environments Lab. “This will showcase how groups of people making high-stakes decisions can make better decisions by collaborating with a cognitive system,” Dario says.
While innovators from IBM and Repsol are using the CEL now to create new applications, Dario envisions companies setting up CELs within their own facilities—essentially, command centers for decision making of all types.
In the oil industry, for instance, all of the people who have a say concerning how much to bid for a particular exploration block will be able to gather in the space to hash out the issues. The space will provide insights that cut across domains. The experts who gather there might include geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, petro-chemical engineers, investment managers, risk analysts, corporate strategists. These people don’t typically meet face to face. The CEL will facilitate those rich interactions.
For Repsol’s Santiago Quesada, this experiment feels like being on the front edge of something big. “We’re glad to be a small part of this story,” he says. “We’re living through the emergence of cognitive computing at IBM.”