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Volume, Depth, and the Ocean Discovery Xprize

Amidst calls for conceptualising the ocean’s depths not simply as a vertical metric but as liquid, dynamic, haptic volume, the newly announced Ocean Discovery Xprize competition is both exciting and disappointing.


Discovering Means of Discovery

Despite the prize’s name, the $7 million award will not go to the team that makes the most impressive discovery in the ocean. Rather, the award will go to the team that is most successful in developing a methodology (or technique, or equipment) that can then be used to make ocean discoveries. Additionally, the specifics of the technology (and, thereby, the discoveries that it could be used to achieve) are defined fairly narrowly:

  • The technology must be based around search and identification (the competition involves identifying an object or feature placed by the competition organisers)
  • The focus is specifically on the seabed surface (the object will be located on the seabed)
  • The technology must be fundamentally visual (to win the award, a team must produce a visual image of the object and an accompanying bathymetric map showing the topography of the seabed in the designated search area)
  • The sensory technology must operate remotely (all humans on the team must remain on shore while the search is being conducted)

As the justification on the Xprize website makes clear, the overall aim is to ‘scale up’ (or, perhaps, ‘scale down’) advances in remote observation and visualisation technologies so that these can be employed at increasing depths. To ensure that this scaling occurs, the competition will consist of two rounds, the first of which involves identifying and capturing an image of an object on the seabed at 2,000 meters, and the second of which will involve doing the same at 4,000 meters.

Between the cracks of these specifications is an implicit list of what the competition does not fund. This includes research into the ocean’s fluid dynamics, its atmospheric interactions, its biological systems, or anything that occurs in the water column. In other words, for a competition that at first glance is all about depth – “getting to the bottom of our ocean” is the competition’s tag line – there is no reward for actually researching the space that constitutes depth. Depth is simply a metric, a number on a bathymetric chart, that challenges our ability to see the seabed.

The competition’s lack of attentiveness to depth as anything but verticality is paralleled by its failure to reward innovative ways of visualising the ocean that account for how the ocean (including the seabed) shifts in time. Indeed, the bathymetric map that entrants are required to submit must “be derived from, and/or align with common industry standards.” Experimental mappers need not apply.

The Science Competition as Shell(‘s) Game

The focus of the competition likely can be explained by the interest of its sponsor: Shell. Shell is a corporation with expertise in a specific sector and it is staging the competition to get researchers to develop basic techniques that it can then use to further its productivity in the sector. It makes perfect sense for an oil and gas firm like Shell to incentivise applications of  emergent airborne and seaborne drone technologies to map the seabed at new depths and obtain images of its features. I’m not critiquing Shell for having this agenda. There are many ways in which Shell invests in research and development. Shell might have chosen to hire more engineers or buy shares in an ROV engineering firm; instead, presumably because it sees such a huge gap in technology, Shell has chosen the mechanism of a competition.

More interesting for me than critiquing Shell for seeking to develop technology that will help it do its business is to consider the perspective on the ocean and its depths that is implicit in Shell’s technology agenda. These are presumably always present in Shell’s engineering priorities, but the format of a public competition, where rules are codified and distributed, make them particularly clear. For Shell, the water column is seen as an encumbrance. It (and the atmosphere) are useful environments for hosting sensing devices, but they are fundamentally understood by Shell as spaces to see through. Verticality presents a challenge – a new dimension that must be conquered – and it is hoped that participants in the competition will develop new ways of meeting these challenges. But the vision and knowledge that is obtained once that challenge is met will closely resemble the planar perspective of the static, two-dimensional surface map. The space between sensor and the sensed seabed surface might as well be empty; in fact, it would be better if it were empty so that one could easily get down to the minerals on the sea floor, first to ‘see’ them and then to extract them.

The gaps in this perspective are revealed by its pairing with an optional side-competition, sponsored by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will provide an additional $1 million ‘bonus prize’ to an entrant whose method of finding the hidden object involves tracking its biological or chemical signature. In organising this side-competition, NOAA is effectively acknowledging that, although there is potential for overlap, tools developed for ‘mapping’ or ‘imaging’ the ocean floor (i.e. those sought by Shell) may not necessarily be the same as those useful for understanding the ocean’s biological or chemical processes, and thus it has chosen to encourage Xprize competitors to develop dual-use technologies. From the perspective of Shell (or, for that matter, competition entrants), though, increased ability to understand the ocean’s processes and its water column is merely a ‘bonus’. The central aim remains one of going deeper, deeper still, through the abyss, and onto a static seabed surface.

A Post-Petroleum Perspective on Volume?

Later this month, in addition to delivering a keynote at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, I’ll be speaking at a side-event there devoted to the Arctic’s post-petroleum future. A central theme of my talk will be that the way we think about (and value) petroleum is wrapped up in a particular view of nature and space, particularly in marine and polar environments. The Ocean Discovery Xprize, and its petroleum-industry based perspective on the sea, makes it abundantly clear that a post-petroleum world is not just a space of alternative energy generation but also a space where depth, volume, dynamism, and liquidity take on new salience, upending our perspective on marine (and other) environments.


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