The digital twin is one of the most innovative technologies to emerge in this era of digital transformation. A term first used by General Electric for the digital copies of the engines they made in their factories is now a reality in a lot of sectors. Digital twins can be almost identical or highly accurate copies of their real counterparts, as with Tesla cars, or just approximate representations. They are used for a wide range of things, like simulation and monitoring the products they imitate.
Two better than one
And the latest digital twins imitate humans themselves. They are gaining ground thanks to virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, the Trojan horses we have trundled into our homes to spy on us. According to Roberto Saracco, president and director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) Italian Node, in the near future we will probably go from accepting we have to live with a personal digital twin to actually wanting one. Last January Samsung even announced they were creating realistic 3D avatars through their Neon project. The point of these personalised digital figures on a screen is to be nothing less than alter egos for users.
The technological extensions of our bodies dreamt up by Derrick de Kerckhove in his book Brainframes would lead to an enhanced human, as the author explains in an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore: “Algorithms, in some cases, make choices for us, and the trend is growing. Today you can already ask a car if you have to turn right or left. Imagine if one day you could ask a digital assistant: ‘Should I get married or not?’ The mobile phone was the first version of the digital twin. At first, it was a problem of engineers struggling with a faulty turbine. Instead of replacing the machine or its workings, these engineers thought it was better to create a digital double of the device, containing all the components and the way they worked, and even the number to call. The idea of the digital twin was born from there. From this concept, which was purely engineering, we’ve arrived at a purely computer application. For example, some people have begun to see whether the twin can be applied to various things like neighbourhoods, businesses, warehouses and even teachers, who have thought of using it in the classroom. At that point, given the large amount of data available about us on the internet, the move to the individual was inevitable. So we left the technical world of engineering and put humans at the centre of the digital twin question.”
Knowledge at the click of a button
The digital twin is a complex synthesis of things built on data extracted from an increasingly interactive world and, with the help of artificial intelligence, in time it too becomes intelligent. We have long since been enhanced people, thanks to the internet, thanks to smartphones that act as extensions of our minds. Our outsourced memory lets us find out in the blink of an eye –WiFi permitting– when Napoleon died, or the square root of 43,967. That information can be got in a couple of clicks. Ever more effective and responsive, the smartphone has become wearable, almost indistinguishable from our own selves.
It has turned us into a species blended with the internet, part of a network of networks, part of an environment rich in diversified information without whose sustenance we could not survive. Against all that, it gets difficult to escape from all the knowledge, from keeping up with the march of the digital transformation, which is what we have to look forward to in the coming decades. Our digital twins will make us enhanced humans. In all probability, in 10 years we will no longer perceive it as a separate entity. We will be a single, inseparable entity. That’s why it’s important to trace the history of this new reality, a thread which runs above all through Industry 4.0. The growing number of sensor-based tools we wear ever more on and in our bodies are bread and meat to our digital doubles.
"Bits” of humanity
But we humans are much more than just a list of our muscles, movements, metabolisms and heartbeats. Above all we are our thoughts. Of course, faithful digital replicas of our brains still belong to the realm of science fiction. But we can get an approximate picture of how our minds behave. The risk is we lose track of the evolution and find ourselves before we even realise it with digital twins dictating where we go to university, eat, go to the gym and everything else in between. It’s clear at this point that, albeit to a very limited extent, the digital copies of ourselves have already begun taking shape at the micro and macro level.
All the information they need to make them is already sitting in databases around the world. At the micro level, for example, it’s now common practice for our medical check-ups –X-rays, CAT scans, MRI and so on– to be digitised. Biological pictures of our body parts then allow our doctors to pick more suitable solutions. At the macro level we might look at Facebook (and many other social media) as a sort of raw digital twin, one that can crystallise aspects of our life, what we do and who we are, in digital form.
These examples are still far off the idea of Neon, the all-encompassing digital twin, but they are a start. The new revolution rests on the ability to replicate atoms in bit form, to arrive at a mirror image of how those atoms interact with each other and with their environment. There is no need to replicate atoms one by one in digital form; a car’s engine has its own digital twin which, however accurate, is not a mirror image. We must understand that digital culture has got a transformation rolling that will occupy more and more space in and outside of us. Understanding its scope helps us decide how to manage it.
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