Big Data and Big Oil
February 22, 2019 9:14 AM   Subscribe

“Last year, Google quietly started an oil, gas, and energy division. It hired Darryl Willis, a 25-year veteran of BP, to head up what the Wall Street Journal described as “part of a new group Google has created to court the oil and gas industry.” As the VP of Google Cloud Oil, Gas, and Energy, Willis spent the year pitching energy companies on partnerships and lucrative deals. “If it has to do with heating, lighting or mobility for human beings on this planet, we’re interested in it,” Mr. Willis told the Journal. “Our plan is to be the partner of choice for the energy industry.” How Google, Amazon, Microsoft, And Big Tech Are Automating The Climate Crisis. (Gizmodo)
posted by The Whelk (37 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don’t know how to feel about this. Probably not good.
posted by 41swans at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Wow, I had kind of convinced myself that although they were helping to destroy the fabric of our society through surveillance capitalism, at least many of the big tech companies believed enough in the threat of climate change that they were doing the right thing. But no, even buildings full of PhDs aren't enough to set the moral compass straight.

Perhaps if this gets more press, employees of these companies will make a fuss like they did with DoD contracts and gender equality?

God I'm getting sick of linking to this cartoon.
posted by gwint at 9:32 AM on February 22, 2019 [18 favorites]


I mean, jfc, it's OK to leave money on the table if the table is on fire.
posted by gwint at 9:35 AM on February 22, 2019 [17 favorites]


we need to break up the big tech companies.
posted by JimBennett at 9:35 AM on February 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


> But no, even buildings full of PhDs aren't enough to set the moral compass straight.

There is literally nothing in the training of a CS PhD that inculcates anything like a moral compass, and a great deal in the training of a CS PhD that teaches them that whatever moral compass they previously had should be ignored.

If you're looking for a doctoral program that tolerates people with moral compasses, you'll probably have to look over in the humanities. However, humanities PhDs can't be trusted to have moral compasses either, though. This is because there are literally no jobs available to people with advanced degrees in the humanities, and so increasingly the only people who can join those programs are people who grew up stinking rich. And growing up stinking rich is a reliable way to end up with no moral compass whatsoever.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:38 AM on February 22, 2019 [48 favorites]


Agreed. My point was more along the lines of: Has PhD -> believes in scientific method -> understands climate crisis -> would not endanger future of planet for a quick buck
posted by gwint at 9:46 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for a doctoral program that tolerates people with moral compasses, you'll probably have to look over in the humanities.

I'll point out that this includes many politicians and lawyers as well. This includes some of the best and many of the worst.

IME, science PhDs with a strong ethical centre tend to end up in either academe or government depending if they want to lead research or put it into practice, especially on the health and environmental disciplines. Not to say that that includes every professor or public servant, but that's where they tend to find jobs that allow them to do what they want to do with their lives. They're often not very visible to the public, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

I don't buy that any discipline has a lock on human morality.

Nor am I defending any of the big companies here---they're just doing the amoral free-market thing and following the smell of money. In my way of thinking the best way to combat this is to include the externalities of climate change in their considerations---make O&G pay the full prices for spills and downstream emissions via carbon taxes and much more comprehensive natural damage assessments following spills (The Gulf spill fine should have been double or triple what it was, for example).
posted by bonehead at 9:49 AM on February 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure it's necessary to believe in the scientific method in order to get a CS PhD. Despite the presence of the word "science" in the name of the field, most of the work of a CS PhD either resembles the work of mathematicians (who don't need to use the scientific method to get their work done) or else it resembles the work of engineers (who likewise don't really need to use the scientific method to get their work done).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this is yet another thing that shows that computer science is too important to leave to the computer scientists.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:49 AM on February 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


Didactic two solitudes frameworks are very unlikely to be helpful in finding solutions to these sorts of problems, ime.
posted by bonehead at 9:55 AM on February 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Is there a proverb which equates to "an innovation which reinforces the powerful is just what the market is looking for"? Castiglione's Law or something along that line?
posted by bukvich at 10:08 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'll just say one more thing:

The reason why these oil extraction companies are jumping on AI and anything else that will speed up the process of getting fossil fuels out of the ground is because they see the writing on the wall: We're at an inflection point with renewables, electric vehicles, and climate awareness. This is the last generation of oilmen. The alternatives are becoming too good and too cheap. Yes, it's going to take 25 years to get to 80% EVs, but it is going to happen because both the economic and policy structures are coming into place. So it's basically a race for these oil companies to get as much as they can before their fields become stranded assets.
posted by gwint at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2019 [22 favorites]


we need to break up the big tech companies

I have gone all the way past that to “seize them and use their assets to mitigate some of the harm they’ve done”

Also applies to energy companies, chemical companies, whoever has fucked us all over in ways so creative and devastating that they exist outside the scope of our current legal system

Like figure out to do it in a way that doesn’t topple the economy, but, you know...still fucking do it

Because they will be perfectly happy to watch the rest of us die from their climate change resistant volcano fortresses (or whatever is the latest fad in the supervillain class)
posted by schadenfrau at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2019 [22 favorites]


I read this post and the prior one and my takeaway is "Happy Friday!"
posted by freecellwizard at 10:28 AM on February 22, 2019


it's unclear whether this is anything more than the various cloud providers signing B2B contracts with some oil companies to sell them their standard services, which usually include some kind of turnkey data modeling product that gets marketed as "AI".

despite what Google's PR department gets journalists to tell everyone, there's not really anything uniquely special or powerful about Google Cloud, it's just a bunch of servers that you can rent hourly, along with some useful tools to manage that.

they do offer a four-week training course in how to use their platform for machine learning, which it looks like some oil company employees will be taking.

Still, it just doesn't seem like there's anything new here to object to, that doesn't apply to every other company that sells a product or service to oil companies. You're left with a general critique of capitalism.

this is somewhat different from taking Google's computer vision research, where they really are pushing the state of the art, and applying it to weapons targeting systems. Management of course saw no problem with this (since technically Lockheed or someone would take the research and put it into the final product, and a soldier would pull the trigger) but Google employees stopped it.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2019 [13 favorites]


Holy crap gwint, an 850mW battery storage facility? That's huge. Nowhere near enough in itself of course, but that's the kind of thing we need to be building if we're going to get our grid and our transportation network off fossil fuels. If they can make that happen and it really does turn out to be cost effective, then we're already there in terms of being able to make this happen.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:35 AM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Uhoh: surely not a coincidence that Jeffrey Skilling has just been released from federal custody. This is super-villain-just-escaped-from-orbiting-cryo-prison stuff.
posted by scruss at 10:52 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Frankly, I would have been stunned if they hadn't linked up...
posted by jim in austin at 10:52 AM on February 22, 2019


"growing up stinking rich is a reliable way to end up with no moral compass whatsoever."
Indeed. And as we keep escalating income and wealth inequality, baking it ever more thoroughly into our culture (through schooling, geography, housing, mores) this will become even more apparent. How about a generation of sociopathic aristocrats?
posted by doctornemo at 11:04 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


So let's say it costs a company $10 a barrel to get the oil they own out of the ground and to market, and they can sell it at $50 a barrel. Then they switch to using a technology that will allow them to extract it for $8 a barrel. This is good; it saves real resources, and that oil would have been pumped anyway.

But let's say that there's an oil field which is difficult to pump, or where the oil is hard to locate, and it currently costs $60 to extract a barrel. If new technology allows them to get it out for $40 a barrel, they are going to extract it, and more oil will be used. (It will also drive down the market price of oil, increasing demand by the amount of the extra oil.) This is good for the oil users, not so good for the planet, because the environmental cost of that barrel of oil is on the order of $20 (though clearly very uncertain).

So they are making $10 profit, but that's only because they aren't absorbing the $20 in environmental fees they should be paying.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that we need a carbon tax.

Even with a tax, the first company will continue pumping and selling oil, but their profits will be lower; a carbon tax will not necessary eliminate fossil fuel use, although it will drive the price higher. As prices of alternative energy sources continue to decline - and will not be subject to the carbon tax - the volume of fossil fuel use will decline, potentially approaching zero.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


It sounds like this is just one part of the AI/big data land rush, with every AI/b.d. provider rapidly seizing every market they can, and every non-AI/b.d. entity trying to get in on the action.

I wonder if we'll go beyond current climate action strategies (350.org, divestment) and actively push for ostracizing the big carbon companies. The ethical and practical principle might be: have no dealings with these behemoths. Do not work for them. Do not purchase their products.
posted by doctornemo at 11:07 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


The ethical and practical principle might be: have no dealings with these behemoths. Do not work for them. Do not purchase their products.

Good luck with that.

This is the archetypal case of a structural problem that cannot be solved through individual choice. That's not to say that we shouldn't make individual choices that reduce our personal fossil fuel consumption, but how exactly would you avoid using petroleum products entirely? Never travel, never use electricity or hot water or heat, never step on a paved road, never use anything that contains plastic… how realistic does that sound?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


But Google is offering cities tools to fight climate change with big data! (previously)

This is another reminder that Google/Alphabet is big and diverse, for good and for ill. See also: Workers at Google just scored an impressive victory (previously), pushing Google to terminate its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, a program that uses machine learning to improve targeting for drone strikes.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:43 AM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


The people making the business/financial decisions at these companies are mostly the same business-school/financial majors who run any other corporation. Singling out computer scientists and engineers seems bizarre since most tech workers are as disempowered from influencing mgmt. and the investor boards, as any other worker in any other field. They just happen to be relatively compensated more.

The collective power shown in the workers' victory of Google ending forced arbitration is the exception, not the rule.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I guess those aspirational mottoes “Don’t Be Evil” and “Do the Right Thing” are receding far, far in the rear-view mirror.
posted by darkstar at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2019


Honestly it's about time this happened. If I had a dollar for every time someone said data is the new oil, I might be able to buy a timeshare in the supervillain fortress resort.
posted by pulposus at 12:07 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Good luck with that... how exactly would you avoid using petroleum products entirely?

I think the latter is impossible, short of going full neoprimitivist (no plastic? no modern pharma? no computers? etc). No, I think it would have to start at the macro level. Engineers refusing to work for Aramco. Services refusing to do business with BP. Cities, unions, companies divesting investment holdings in carbon-centric firms. Individuals stop buying non-fuel items (snacks) from gas stations. Perhaps individuals start cutting off people who work for these companies. Street art starts targeting Shell stations and offices, unto vandalism. Air passengers become even more unhappy than they are now.

Then it accelerates as non-fossil-fuel alternatives grow. People avoid gas-powered vehicles in favor of electrically-powered ones for mass transit and taxi/Uber, as the choices become available, then lobby cities for laws to encourage these choices. People reduce flying so they can instead take rail or airship, depending on availability; remote work grows. Homeowners, renters, and businesses avoid paying carbon-centric utilities for power and turn to green utilities or DIY options - again, as they become more accessible.

Mores change. Working for an energy company becomes like working for big tobacco in the 2000s: something at best embarrassing, at worse actively offensive. It becomes more acceptable to take longer to get to a destination - people entertain themselves along the way with Netflix in their googles, say, or doing work. Burning a lot of carbon becomes the equivalent of smoking in non-smokers' faces. Petroleum engineering majors do as much work online as possible, due to campus shaming.

Non-carbon businesses grow in number and reach. People affiliate with them for reasons beyond economics, proudly wearing t-shirts and sporting tattoos of their favorites: New York Wind, Central Solar, Big Green Machines.

Further on, Congress holds trials of big carbon, Pecora Commission, Church Committee type affairs, including very bad publicity, changing public opinion, and leading to both punishments and policy changes.

And so on.

This is the archetypal case of a structural problem that cannot be solved through individual choice.
Oh, I completely agree. But Americans do love to "solve" problems through thoughtful shopping.
posted by doctornemo at 12:52 PM on February 22, 2019




Honestly it's about time this happened. If I had a dollar for every time someone said data is the new oil, I might be able to buy a timeshare in the supervillain fortress resort.

it's a good phrase because the actual implication is that when the data leaks out, there will be widespread disaster but the company whose fault it is won't be made to pay for it.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


On the subject of where tech companies inject a moral compass into their algorithms, this podcast with Shannon Vallor is interesting.
posted by asok at 1:28 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


But let's say that there's an oil field which is difficult to pump, or where the oil is hard to locate, and it currently costs $60 to extract a barrel.

hey google

where is the oil
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:32 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Theo L is a performing artist who lives in Los Angeles
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:45 PM on February 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


There's currently change in the resource and energy sectors about how these companies regard IT. There is a growing desire to incorporate IIoT and "connected everything". The challenge is the culture of the industry, plus there really is no mature, proven technology solution at this point that businesses can trust.

Companies like Google have the capacity and the skills to help these companies implement these new technologies. It's a big deal: margins in the energy (O&G) sector are really slim. So there's a reluctance to adopt new technologies that increase productivity.

And, in the short term, productivity gains are pretty marginal, and not big enough so that it's going to radically depress the price of energy and encourage us humans to keep burning it.

Or, rather, the shale revolution over the past ten years has already done that. It costs about $10M to set up a fracking well in the US. That is cheap. And shale fracking technologies, not Google, are what have kept the price of gas at the American pump cheap.

For example, an oil/tar sands development in northern Alberta costs $10B to start up. So the benefits of implementing these technologies is marginal... but every cost savings helps the bottom line of these companies.

But "connected everything" is not going to improve the bottom line enough to help us fuel our F-150s and SUVs.

Fundamentally, carbon emissions are a cultural problem. Amazon, with its 1-day delivery, is just as responsible as Google for promoting C02 emissions. It's not easy to decarbonize air freight or air travel, unless citizens, as consumers, decide they don't want to do that anymore.

Why is the F-150 the most popular passenger vehicle sold in North America? Why have SUVs replaced the passenger car? Cheap oil is one reason, but I think culture is another reason.

How do we decarbonize our culture?
posted by JamesBay at 1:58 PM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


(maybe gwint answered my question above)
posted by JamesBay at 1:58 PM on February 22, 2019


I work in the oil and gas industry, so I've got an obvious axe to grind.

Anyway, as noted upthread, this is more of a criticism of capitalism, not the tech industry. Are they helping oil companies extract oil more efficiently? Yup. Have companies been doing that before computers were even invented? Yup. Are oil and gas companies gonna find a way to be more efficient regardless of what Google, Amazon and others do? Yup.

If you think oil and gas shouldn't be utilized, tax or ban it. Put policies in place that make it more expensive and fund alternatives like electric vehicles and energy conservation.

But, keep in mind that cheap energy is the primary reason that global poverty is at an all-time low. Diesel powers the tractors that feeds China , India and Nigeria. Gasoline powers the buses that take women to work in Iran, South Africa and Argentina.

It's okay to dislike oil and gas. It contributes to climate change. But don't delude yourselves into thinking that if you hold Google, Microsoft and Amazon's feet to the fire that you've solved the climate crisis. It takes difficult global public policy decisions to move that needle.
posted by Phreesh at 2:19 PM on February 22, 2019 [13 favorites]


I mean, yes, big tech is amorally courting the business of an industry that is driving climate change and has been lying about it. It's a little weird that so many people are focusing entirely on the culpability of big tech and the need to regulate them for this (as opposed to competition policy, privacy protections, and more), and not, say, regulating some aspect of the oil industry, which in this story is the primary cause of the harm.
posted by pykrete jungle at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


If nothing else it'll be fun seeing the whiny entitled children of the oil majors go up against the sociopathic monoliths of big tech.
The oil companies would only piss the money away on yet more management consultants anyway.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:35 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Some positive news from the House of Google: Alphabet subsidiary trained AI to predict wind output 36 hours in advance -- Intermittent power supply is a problem for the grid, and predicting it has value. (Megan Geuss for Ars Technica, Feb. 27, 2019)
Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind (it was acquired by Alphabet in 2014) has been developing artificial-intelligence programs since 2010 to solve complex problems. One of DeepMind's latest projects, according to a recent Google post, has centered around the predictability of wind power.

Those giant turbines you see along the highway only produce power when they're moving, and that poses a problem for the grid: in the absence of expensive energy storage, it's difficult to plan how much power those turbines will be able to provide.

That's not to say that wind-farm owners don't try to predict output. The industry has been using AI techniques for years (IEEExplore) to try to come closer and closer to real wind predictions.

But wind is still very difficult to predict. In fact, E&E News published a story today showing just how difficult it is to predict wind-farm output: during the Midwest's recent polar vortex, wind output fell, but as temperatures continued to drop, some turbines automatically shut down to keep their parts from being damaged by cold below -22°F.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:50 AM on February 28, 2019


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