Industrial strategy revisited

Today, May 21st 2018, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May is scheduled to give a speech regarding AI and the use of health data. This is the start of the revelation of the UK government’s new industrial strategy. From my vantage point, I see this political response to be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. My post was written (and published) before this speech and is a naughty attempt by me to see how well her speech writers know their political history. I have framed this in the terms of the Oil and Gas industry, Mrs. May’s speech will address Health Tech, but maybe some of the broader themes will resonate.

Industrial strategy is a something that the government hasn’t really majored on since the days of Anthony Wedgewood Benn.  They do say that history doesn’t repeat – but it does echo. This post draws on the “White Heat of Technology Revolution” speech given by Harold Wilson in October 1963.

To provide some context, Mr. Wilson’s speech was given during the early days of the 3rd industrial revolution. At this point we were seeing the start of computerisation and automation. Within a few short years we would see: the end of the typing pool; the death of the statistical time-and-motion studies; ledgers would be replaced with spreadsheets; and punch cards with magnetic tape with hard disk drives.

Unlike Mr. Wilson, who basically suggested that we better get on board with computerisation or we are all doomed; it appears that Mrs. May’s speech is going to suggest that AI can help cure cancer. Maybe it’s true that you can catch more wasps with honey than with vinegar. Mr Wilson’s political approach led, eventually, to the “Winter of Discontent” and the inevitable computerisation/automation led to the mass unemployment and the industrial upheaval of the 1970’s. Perhaps there are “interesting times” ahead?

I’ve taken some liberties by extracting parts of the 55 year old speech and reframed them. Perhaps you, too, will hear the echoes of history and see the implication of the change that we now face. For a transcript of the full speech have a look at this link

White Heat of Technology in Oil and Gas

(with apologies to Harold Wilson)

Now, this morning, I present this blog post to the world, the oil industry and the 4th Industrial Revolution, because the strength, the solvency and influence of the oil and gas industry which some still think depends upon nostalgic illusions or upon sub-sea posturing – these things are going to depend in the remainder of this century to a unique extent on the speed with which we come to terms with the world of change.

There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living […..] From now on The Oil Industry will have just as much influence on energy supply as we can deserve. We have no accumulated reserves on which to live.

It is, of course, a cliché that we are living in a time of such rapid scientific change that our children are accepting as part of their everyday life things which would have been dismissed as science fiction a few years ago. We are living perhaps in a more rapid revolution than some of us realise. The period from 2018 until the mid 2020’s will embrace a period of technical change particularly in production methods, greater than the whole industrial revolution and period of computerisation that went before.

It is only a few years since we first talked about digitalisation […..] Let us be frank about one thing. It is no good trying to comfort ourselves with the thought that digitalisation need not happen here; that it is going to create so many problems that we should perhaps put our heads in the sand and let it pass us by. Because there is no room for Luddites in our industry. If we try to abstract from the digitalisation age, the only result will be that the Oil Industry will become a stagnant backwater, pitied and condemned by the rest of commerce.

[….]

Because we have to recognize that digitalisation is not just one more process in the history of computerisation, if by computerisation we mean the application of technology to eliminate the need for data gathering and analysis by middle-management. The essence of modern digitalisation is that it replaces hitherto unique human functions of: risk assessment; judgement, decision making in the face of uncertainty; and ultimately action taking. Now digitalisation has reached the point where it commands facilities of memory and of judgement far beyond the capacity of any human being or group of human beings who have ever lived.

[….]

Or listen to the problem in another way. We can now set a machine learning system so that, without the intervention of any human agency, it can produce a new set of algorithms smarter than itself. And when these tools have acquired, as they have now, the faculty of unassisted reproduction, you have reached a point of no return where if man is not going to assert his control over machines, the machines are going to assert their control over man.

[….]

The problem is this. Since technological progress left to the mechanism of private property can lead only to high profits for a few, a high rate of employment for a few and to mass redundancies for the many.

[…]

Now I come to what we must do, and there are four things:

  1. We must produce more digitally trained engineers
  2. Once produced we must be more successful in keeping them in the industry
  3. We must make intelligent use of them
  4. We must organize the oil Industry so that it applies the results of their insights to the efficient production of hydrocarbons

[…..]

Relevant, also, to these problems are our plans for on-demand cyber training and MOOC’s (Massive Online Open Courses). These are designed to provide an opportunity to those who have not been trained in digital methods to do so with all that the internet and mobile technologies can offer.

[…..]

I have talked in other companies to ex oil-and-gas digital-workers who have left the industry. It is not so much a question salary; it is the poor valuation put on their work by our industries; the lack of interest in their work; and the inadequate provision of digital infrastructure and equipment. It is because in many cases in the Oil industry today, promotion of those versed in technological methods and their new ideas for ways-of-working are thwarted by middle management.

One message I hope this conference can send out, not only to those who are wondering whether to leave the industry or not, but to those who have already left is this: we want you to stay here. We want those of you who have left the industry to think about coming back, because the industry is going to need you.

[….]

The oil industry that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of IT or the Business. We shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of educating for changing working practices. If there is one thing where the traditional philosophy of capitalism breaks down it is in the training for digitalization, because quite frankly it does not pay any individual operator, unless it is very altruistic, quixotic or farsighted, to train the digital workers if it knows at the end they will be snapped up by some unscrupulous firm that makes no contribution to the training. That is what economists mean when they talk about the difference between marginal private cost and net social cost.

I’ll leave you to read the original and draw your own conclusions, I don’t agree with all the cut-and-thrust and pro-soviet views expressed but there are echoes from history that we ignore now at our peril.

Image Credit is from MI5. Oh, and if you like a good conspiracy theory have a look at the denials on MI5’s website about the alleged plot to bring down the Wilson government of 1974-76, and – interestingly – that George W Bush was head of the CIA (who knew? He kept that quiet). https://www.mi5.gov.uk/the-wilson-plot

 

 

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upstreamgareth

Entrepreneur, Management Consultant, Technologist - Interested in all things Upstream Oil and Gas, New Ventures and Projects.

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