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Digital twins live in the present and in the past, to create the future

Our life flows through an ocean of bits. They are becoming more and more important to the point of shaping what we do, what we perceive and eventually who we are. Image credit: PC Mag

Just three days ago I shared some thoughts on how our “smartness” depends on our social environment, on the support we are receiving from a multitude of other humans, most of which we don’t even know of their existence.

All this support is freeing us from the need to know many things, beyond the possibility of knowing…, and to focus on something specific. That makes us smarter than our ancestors and, in a win-win game, my being smarter makes others smarter in a never ending loop.

There is actually more in store in the future that will make us, individually and as species, even smarter: the fuzzy boundaries between us and the cyberspace, between us and machine, a fuzzy space where digital twins thrive.

Ask me to take the square root of a number. I have a vague feeling I studied that some 50 years ago at college, but to tell the truth I forgot it long time ago. Hey, no problem! I just take my smartphone, one click on a smart calculator app and here you go. I can square any number.

As a matter of fact I know how to square a number, because I know the algorithm: pick up the smartphone, click on the smart calculator up, type in the number, press “square”.

Plenty of my knowledge is displaced from my brain to a different knowledge space. So what? As long as I have access to that different knowledge space I am fine. But that goes for almost everything! When I need gasoline I don’t need to have gasoline in my pocket (inconvenient to say the least) I just need to know the location of the nearest gas station…, when I feel like eating a loaf of bread I am not going to cook one, just turn to the nearest baker store…

We have come to accept this distributed knowledge, most of the times we are not even perceiving that it is distributed. As long as I can get it, seamlessly and effortlessly, it looks like it is “my knowledge”.

This is a challenge to educators, they have to educate students/professionals to harvest a distributed knowledge. This is a challenge for IEEE, they can no longer be a “repository” of knowledge, they have to transform it into a distributed knowledge seamlessly integrating with individual knowledge.

As my colleague Witold Kinsner says,

the IEEE Educational Activities and the IEEE Education Society not only must work together, but also with the IEEE AGM, IEEE Publications, and IEEE TA to reshape the education process and the sooner the Better. They have to develop digital twins in education. The educational twins are needed at all stages, from the young to the seasoned.

As we are moving towards a more symbiotic relationship with machines we will come to accept that our knowledge extends to include the ones provided by machines. This knowledge can be represented in bits, and it can be part of our digital twin. Actually, given the progress we are expecting in the area of Augmented Reality we will experience a continuous overlapping of knowledge in bits with the practical knowledge we need here and now.

It can be something concrete like: “uhm, how big is that couch? would it fit in my living room?” – this mumbling would result, first, in seeing the measure of the couch overlaid on it and then the image of the couch surrounded by the artificial image of my living room (that would be good because I may not remember what it is in my living room right now… but my digital twin, connected to my home digital twin does!).

It can also be something more “abstract” like looking at a poster of a movie and seeing a clip of that movie, looking at a theatre ads and hearing the voice of the main actor, looking at a monument and feeling immerse in that historical time…

I chose these examples because they slightly move the concept of present knowledge (what does my living room look like, what is the movie about…) to the recreation of the past. The magic with digital twins is that they provide data that can be contextualised as needed, both in space and time.

More than that. A digital twin keeps the record of all its time instances, how it was yesterday and a year ago. These data can be used by an application to create customised knowledge.
This applies to machines, as well as to ourselves. A doctor having access to (a part of) my digital twin can discover the reason of a food allergy, just getting knowledge (in a synthetic form) of my food habit (again, a very trivial example).

Digital twins will become, this is my bet, a crucial component in my knowledge space. They will be about the present and the past. More than that. A smart knowledge creation application can mine many digital twins and condense what makes sense to me, here and now.

The ocean of bits is not just about the surface we are seeing (navigating in the image I chose) but it is about its depth. And in this case the depth represents the history, the past.

Knowledge that will help us shaping the future will be based on what it is today, what it was in the past, and the changes that led to the present.  In a way this was always the case but with digital twins it will be even more so.
We have seen the web being transformed in the last 15 years from a repository where we look for information to a set of applications providing information. A similar process is going to take place in the education space: from looking at books where information is contained to accessing applications (seamlessly) that deliver information here and now, as I need it. And mind you: it is not about meeting the lazy, it is about enabling grasping an ever more rich and complex knowledge space.
Additionally, consider that each one of us, is no longer a student for the first part of his life, we have to remain students throughout our life and education can no longer be structured for classroom delivery. It has to become customised, to the person, to the time and to the context.

A challenging feat, an interesting one!

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.

One comment

  1. Mr. Saracco,

    This is a great article. Most of the publications on digital twins address optimizing machine operations or testing products before building them.

    What you have described is more in line with the vision of Berners-Lee:

    I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web”, which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The “intelligent agents” people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

    I’m sure you are aware that Berners-Lee is pursuing a project, “Solid”, to bring privacy to personal data. It is a good effort, but I don’t believe it lives up to his original vision.

    I emailed the link to your article to others that are having difficulty grasping the concept of a personal digital twin.

    Tom Tinsley