Inflection Point I An interview with AltaML’s managing director about AI’s role in shaping Calgary’s digital future

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” – George Bernard Shaw

Calgary, the historical heart of the Canadian oil & gas industry, is at a once-in-an-epoch inflection point that will determine our destiny for this next millennium and beyond. Energy sources and technologies that have powered the creation of wealth and opportunity in Canada and beyond for multiple generations are now caught in an existential struggle between the past and the future. New energy alternatives promise a road to a sustainable future but provide limited answers for the present. Utopian solutions offered by leading advocates are often not grounded in the reality of present-day economies and communities.

For us to compete, indeed, to survive, in the 21st century, all of us – oil & gas enterprises, governments, civic society organizations – must come together in a common purpose to define our common future.

With depressed commodity prices, increased volatility and the rapidly evolving requirement to balance economic and ecological progress; the motivation to seek greater paths of operational efficiency in the energy industry is at an all-time high. Energy companies are in relentless pursuit of a unified technology platform that will automate, accelerate and digitally empower their business. Until now, the digital transformation of the energy industry has been suppressed by cost, complexity and insufficient advances in industry-centric technology.

Slow, archaic and fragmented business processes have been supported by legacy IT systems, disparate and divergent architectural structures and unintelligible sets of data. The modern industrial enterprise may have already attempted to digitize several business processes, but through this process of digitization, they have often only magnified the staggering level of operational inefficiency; and in many cases paid an equally staggering price tag in order to do so.

Quite simply, the business itself needs to digitally change and transform; not just the processes and applications that support the business. So, where can these companies turn to transform their business and survive, grow and prosper in the Digital Age? I sat down with Lucas Scheer, Managing Director of AltaML to find out.

What role is AltaML playing in the proliferation of a more diverse, prosperous and globally competitive Alberta digital ecosystem?

Alberta is uniquely positioned to be competitive on a global scale in this area. Investment in Artificial Intelligence began in this province over twenty years ago, long before the current hype cycle began. As a result, we have people coming to this province from all over the world to study and conduct AI research.

One role that AltaML plays is to retain this talent in Alberta and marry that skillset with the business problems and data of more traditional industries. In doing so we can keep that intellectual capital and wealth creation right here in Alberta. We also work closely with post-secondaries and other stakeholders to build a more robust talent stream in the cities we operate in, specifically Calgary and Edmonton.

What are real-world examples of practical tools that companies like AltaML are offering to an energy industry in an impending state of momentous transition? How does Machine Learning help oil and gas companies amalgamate business, industrial and digital innovation into a unified, value-differentiating strategy?

Machine Learning is certainly just one piece of the puzzle but is an essential tool for companies looking to drive cost reduction in their industrial processes. Practically speaking ML can help oil and gas companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, optimize production, predict more efficient maintenance programs, and more. There are also compelling use cases in health and safety, HR, and finance. Cost reduction is great, but any time you can do something to ensure you’re keeping people out of harm’s way, increase the sustainability of your business, it’s a huge win.

Can you tell us about a customer success story in the oil and gas industry you are most proud of? What problem(s) did you help the customer solve using ML and what were the business outcomes?

It’s tough to choose a favourite. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in drilling and completions to help our customers in those areas solve some of their toughest problems and ultimately help them be more competitive. I think I’m most excited about the health and safety use cases we’re just starting to unpack now.

The holy grail there is being able to predict when an incident will occur. There are many other ways we can help be proactive about safety including helping our customers assemble crews and schedule work to ensure the lowest chance of an incident occurring. Tied for first would be anything involving reducing GHG emissions, we’re seeing a lot of interest in this area as well.

How can private enterprise, government, community, and industry work together to define a common purpose for our province and ensure a utopian future is realized for the vast majority of our population?

I don’t have a twelve-step program to ensure a utopian future or solve world hunger. I do think there are several things that are important to Alberta’s future.

It’s important to understand that artificial intelligence and other transformational technologies are a horizontal enabler for the existing industries in Alberta. Sometimes I get the sense there’s a feeling that tech will compete for dollars with oil and gas for example. This isn’t the case. These traditional industries will be the benefactors of this investment in the form of cost savings and other benefits.

We also need to continue to nurture our province’s previous investments in AI. We’re seeing budgetary cuts across the board in Alberta right now including cuts to investment in tech, AI, and research. These cuts will limit the province’s ability to be competitive in this arena and similarly reduce to a positive impact on traditional industries.

Lastly, I think there’s more that could be done to create a favourable environment for investment in early-stage companies across all industries. Being attractive to investment in new ventures is key to creating a robust economy here.

Lucas will be joining Mike Henrich, Managing Director of DevOps at ATB Financial for a one-on-one fireside chat at The ERA Digital Foundation’s upcoming ‘The Soft Machine’ live-action event series in Calgary on April 30.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Robert Brennan Hart
Robert Brennan Hart
Robert Brennan Hart currently serves as the Executive Vice President of Social Impact at the Electronic Recycling Association and has been recognized by the United Nations Foundation as one of the world's Top 70 Digital Leaders and Avenue Magazine as a Top 40 Under 40 digital luminary. As the founder and former CEO of the Canadian Cloud Council and Politik, Robert is a globally recognized advocate for the advancement of a more equitable and enlightened digital society and has participated as a member of the United Nations Global Digital Council, DocuSign global advisory board, and HotTopic’s Meaningful Business steering committee. Previous to joining the ERA, Robert served as the Chief Community Officer at Abaxx Technologies and Executive Producer of the Smarter Markets podcast.

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