ANAHEIM, California—At a Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) conference with a heavy focus on digitally transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and neural networks, it was fitting that the keynote speaker for the Oct. 15 opening session and presidential address discussed those very topics.

After introductory remarks from General Chair Dan Hollis, Outgoing President Nancy House addressed the packed house about the need for SEG’s continued work in the world.

While oil and gas demand in the developed world will level out or even decline, developing countries will offset this decline, and in the near term it’s estimated that less than 25% of this demand will be met by renewables. Water scarcity is also an issue, and programs like Geoscientists without Borders are helping use geoscience skills to combat these problems. Overall, the society has 58 committees furthering the advancement of geophysics.

House introduced Darryl Willis, vice president, oil gas and energy at Google Cloud, who was the morning’s keynote. His message was simple—“The cost of the status quo: Get on board or get left behind.” Willis maintained that the industry can’t afford to be left behind in the digital transformation.

This assertion might amuse geophysicists who have waited for years for computers to catch up with their processing and interpretation theories. But now that AI, ML and neural networks are more than theories themselves, the industry needs to respond nimbly to the new promise, something it hasn’t always proved adept at.

Willis was actually a geophysicist for many years, studying the geology of Death Valley as a graduate student. He said SEG provided funding for his travels to Death Valley during his studies. After graduation he went to work for Amoco, now BP, traveling the world as he honed his skills.

“One of the most exciting things was when I had my first oil discovery offshore New Orleans,” he said. “I felt like I could finally call myself an oil and gas person. I did that over and over, which was pretty exciting until I drilled my first dry hole. I still think it should have worked. It haunts me to this day.”

While the industry has made enormous progress, he still thought the rate of progress was too slow. So after 25 years in the oil and gas industry, he went to work for Google Cloud. “I made the decision to join Google Cloud to help accelerate this much talked-about digital transformation, which is taking way too long. I worry about the lack of velocity in the face of change. Time is of the essence.

“A statement used in the '60s and '70s is a statement that I think is useful to us now: ‘It's time for us to think about the fierce urgency of now.’ Those of you who do not embrace this journey that entails all things digital will ultimately become the casualties.”

Part of the issue is the sheer volume of data being generated. And while more data might not seem like a good thing, Willis is a strong proponent of merging new datasets with older datasets and finding meaning in those datasets. “In your work today, how much data is being generated?” he asked. “And how much are you actually using to make decisions or to derive insights? Is it where it should be in the 21st century? Are you where you should be in the 21st century? Can we do better? Can you do better?

“My assertion is that we can do a lot better. There's a lot of data trapped in spreadsheets, reports, Power Point slides, work documents, file cabinets, etc. And there's a lot of data being generated as we speak on vessels or platforms or pads. Data is being generated in real time, and it's more than we can handle.”

Another problem is the time it takes to acquire a seismic survey, process it, interpret it and deliver a final product. Willis thinks this time can be dramatically condensed, for instance, reducing the cycle time for data acquisition from years to weeks or planning a well and drilling it in one day.

“These things can be accomplished through AI and ML,” he said. “We no longer have the luxury to take our time.”

Overall, he said, the continuing need for oil and gas should be an instigation to move this adoption along. “The time is now, and action is required of us now,” he said. “If we're going to truly embrace the future and help light up the world, we've got some work to do.”