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Can we have a digital twin?

How long before we live with a digital twin on our side? Although one should never say never, a full digital twin is still science fiction, but partial digital twins are already here, and they are getting more and more like us. Image credit: Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Digital twins, a name created by General Electric to identify the digital copy of an engine manufactured in their factories, are now a reality in a number of industries. They can be almost “identical” to the real thing, like in the case of General Electric engines and some modern keys where you have to take their digital twin to get a copy, or pretty accurate replicas like in case of Tesla cars or more coarse representation in case of other products.

These digital twins can be used for a variety of purposes, simulation and monitoring are clearly common applications. They can also be used as platform to test adds on (these latter also in the form of digital twins). The growth of digital twins is steamed by the growing digitalization in the design phase that ends up in producing a digital copy of the final product, digital copy that is used in the manufacturing of the product in the factory by using robots and other sorts of digital controlled manufacturing tools.

What about us? Can we imagine a digital twin for us. Actually it is no longer science fiction and in a way, in a very limited sense, it has already started both at the micro and macro level.

At micro level it has become commonplace to have several of our medical exams digitlised (MRI, TAC, radiographies…). These digital representation of (parts of) our bodies are being used by applications that help the physician to understand the result, to show it to us and sometimes to give specifications for the manufacturing of prosthetics (including slings, casts and plates to fix a broken femur).

At the macro level we can consider Facebook as a sort of -coarse- digital twin, capturing in digital way part of what we do and who we are (and of course several other applications in the social space).

Both of them are clearly far from a full blown digital twin, although the can serve some of the purpose a digital twin can serve.

What about the future? Creating a digital twin basically requires the capability to replicate atoms into bits ans well as create a digital mirror image of how those atoms interact among them and with their environment. Clearly there is no need to really create an atom to bit mapping, a General Electric engine has a very accurate digital twin that, however, does not represent each single atom in the engine. What you need is a granularity that is sufficient for the type of use you will have and to the extent that the mapping -what is done by the digital twin versus what is done by the “real twin” is accurate. As an example, a digital representation of a femur should include its exact shape, dimension and functional strenght, along with blood vessels up to a certain size, not the representation of all its osteocytes and calcium trabeculae.

Secondly, you need to have a continuous monitoring of what is going on. Again, the granularity both in time and space should be sufficient for your intended use of the digital twin. Mirroring the hearth beat a few times per second is ok, mirroring breathing a few times per minute is also ok… and so on.

Thirdly you need to create a model that makes sense from both the digitalised structure (your body/organs/ methabolisms) and the ongoing activity.

For the first we have now several tools that can create a digital map of our body, both external and internal, like 3D laser scanning, radiography, ecography, MRI  and more. For the second we have a growing number of wearable, contact and -coming- embedded sensors that can track what is going on.

For the third, I have no doubt that once there will be a sufficient number of people with a digital twin, hence a market, we will have plenty of people/companies creating application to leverage on the digital twin.

However, there is much more than mirroring muscles and movement, more then metabolism and heartbeat.  What about thoughts? The creation of a mirror “brain” is still in the domain of science fiction, however the approximation of behaviour, the monitoring of knowledge is already within the domain of today’s possibilities. Many living beings are complex systems, and for sure human beings are, which means that to a certain extent they cannot be simplified otherwise you are missing some essential aspects.

The creation of our digital twin will be a long process, so long, infact, that the risk is that it will fade away from our perception. It may become natural to have our gait digitalised and the digital model used for rehabilitation, likewise it may become more and more natural to track our whereabouts, the food we are eating and use that information if something is wrong (possibility of contagion, something wrong with the food…). Storing our genome will become the norm within the next decade, and that information will be used routinely by our doctor, as well as by our virtual medical assistants.

Wellbeing will be monitored, checking the number of steps, the heartbeat, the calories intake, the blood oxygenation and all these data will become a normal part of our digital self. What we read and what we watch on internet will be monitored more and more, interactions with retailers, both real and digital will largely be based on our digitalised tastes.

As you can see it is a slippery slope where more and more of us becomes mirrored in bits and it is difficult to draw a line both on what is feasible and on what is desirable.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.