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The rich opportunities of AI in the energy sector

James Lawrence and Irène Lopez — February 2020
From detecting oil reservoirs and scheduling refinery maintenance to optimizing home electricity consumption, artificial intelligence is giving rise to a flood of value propositions for energy multinational Total, says Dominique Pardo, its head of global IT Services.

The opportunities presented by artificial intelligence (AI) to the Total group are nothing short of “immense,” according to Dominique Pardo, president of the energy giant’s Global IT Services subsidiary.

And among heads of IT he is perhaps uniquely positioned to judge that — having graduated with a master’s degree in the subject back in 1983 when the technology was in its infancy and its potential poorly recognized.

In his view, integrating AI with the company’s deep technical capabilities feels very much like a natural progression rather than a major step-change. “We’re not starting this from scratch,” Pardo emphasizes. “Total is an engineering company with many scientists and mathematicians — and we have been applying mathematical models for a very long time.”

But now with the technology maturing and the computing power there to drive it, Total is finding value-generating use cases right across its varied activities such as in command and control, predictive maintenance, and remote control — particularly in conjunction with its major transformation program [see ‘Digital technology as a lever for business transformation’].
Journey of discovery

“Already ongoing, we have a program that uses neural networks to accelerate the evaluation of seismic images during oil and gas exploration [where] we are trying to predict the presence — or not — of reservoirs,” Pardo says. “Historically this has taken a long time and is expensive, so accelerating it represents a very important play, ultimately, for our decision-making on investments today and in the future.”

AI is also being deployed to improve efficiencies in Total’s refineries. “Our Refinery 4.0 program involves the application of digital technologies in all kinds of industrial processes connected to refining, such as remote control and, for example, the optimization of refinery shutdowns.”

Total is launching a ‘digital factory’ in early 2020, where AI and its multiple applications will figure strongly. “We have identified a number of use cases whose deployments will be accelerated through the work of the digital factory, which will launch at the beginning of [2020],” he says.

And what does he hope AI can achieve in the long term? “I don’t know if I can dream for the Total group,” he says, “but I see a lot of areas in renewable energies; electricity will be much more important for us. For example, every house will have to optimize and regulate the energy it consumes. Behind this, there will be AI programs — essentially large mathematical optimization programs — that will be able to interact and regulate the consumption and propagation of energy,” he says.

Impressive as the AI applications are, however, for Pardo AI is just one of many current technologies in his armory — and it may not even be the most disruptive in the future, he believes.
Omnipresent voice

“The most significant innovations for me are the ones yet to come,” he explains, “because today the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data and so on are things that already exist and whose use will only increase within enterprises. But, in effect, these are things that are beginning to be well mastered. The speed of their deployment is, more or less, a function of the sectors in which companies are active.”

But the real game-changer for most users, he argues, will be voice control — and particularly when combined with robotics. “Voice-enabled human-machine interfaces will completely change how digital technology will be used,” he predicts.

What’s more, he believes this will have a huge effect on organizations — Total included. But that will be driven by user habits outside of the enterprise. “Voice is set to disrupt everything because it’s simple,” he explains. “Everyone who knows how to speak already knows how to use it, and in cars, in towns, in streets, at home, many objects will respond to voice commands.”

But the pace of adoption will not be determined by business, he says. “In the world of digital technology, it’s not companies that set the rules — it’s what is decided by people in the street. So when the street has decided to adopt voice interfaces, companies will also start to work with voice. I think it’s an innovation that will mark a real breakthrough, and that will be brought about by robotics that respond to the human voice.”
First published
February 2020
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About: Dominique Pardo
As president of Global IT Services at Total, Dominique Pardo leads a team of 5,000 IT professionals located around the world — from Houston and Singapore to the energy company’s HQ in Paris. A mathematician by training, Pardo is passionate about the positive impact of digital innovation across all areas of business and society, with his current interests including voice-activation, workplace IT and artificial intelligence. Indeed, he obtained a master’s degree in AI during the technology’s formative years in the early 1980s.

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