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From Digital Reality to Reality – VI

The XIX century claim (proved to be false) that a frog in water with a temperature rising ever so slightly will end up cooked without noticing… has some links with human ability to perceive changes. If these changes are very slow and happen over a long span of time they may go undetected. The Digital Transformation may be a point in case… Image credit: Medium – Psychology secrets for marketing

Time to do a bit of recapping. I started by noticing that Digital Reality, made possible by technology evolution and its adoption, is creating a new world in the cyberspace, something that was clearly “artificial”. In a little while two forces have started to blur this separation:

  1. The easiness of accessing the cyberspace is making it an integral part of our everyday life
  2. The intertwining of features delivered through the cyberspace with the one embedded in a product makes the boundary fuzzier and fuzzier

Then I made the point that technologies like Digital Twins may change our visibility of the cyberspace (profiling is already a step in that direction) resulting in the perception of different Digital Reality but since Digital Reality is more and more indistinguishable from Reality the result is that the distinction between objective and subjective reality becomes more and more difficult.

The Digital Transformation is accelerating and in some areas is the cause of this blurring of boundaries. It is happening because there is a very strong economic incentive to shift the business as much as possible to the cyberspace, since transaction cost is much lower and the potential market reach is the whole planet.

This transformation is opening up a can of worms:

  • who is controlling, influencing, our perception of reality? It is nothing new, of course, the impact of media on society as a whole and on the single individual is a well studied area; what is new is the loss of transparency and the highly increased effectiveness of the influence;
  • in the past we had an objective reality, we could disagree on its interpretation/meaning but the starting point was the same for everybody. It made sense for Leibniz saying: “quando orientur controversiae, non magis disputatione opus erit inter duos philosophos, quam inter duos computistas. Sufficiet enim calamos in manus sumere sedereque ad abacos, et sibi mutuo (accito si placet amico) dicere:calculemus”  (if controversies were to arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two calculators. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands and to sit down at the abacus, and say to each other (and if they so wish also to a friend called to help): Let us calculate). Now we are seeing that the starting point for two persons may be different, reality is subjective once it gets mediated by technology. The problem is that the cyberspace has become so huge, and complex when you consider the semantic cyberspace, the one deriving from the analyses of data correlation, that it is beyond the human capability to make sense of it, technology is not an option;
  • in a framework of digital twins mediating the access to digital reality and creating a personal (perceived) reality, who will be responsible for the outcome? Will we have to abdicate negotiation to digital twins, asking them to sort out differences among them first and then come back to us with a modified, but accepted, reality? This is an area where I see even bigger issues than the ones that are now under the spotlight when considering artificial intelligence (if you want this is artificial intelligence squared – since artificial intelligence is at the core of the generation of semantics and in the operation of future personal digital twins);
  • controlling personal digital twins means controlling your, my, perception of the world. Do you think this is so far away in the future that it is not a real issue? Well, what about Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant? Aren’t they a first step in the direction of a personal Digital Twin? Aren’t they getting better (more performant, seamless to use, knowledgeable …) every day more? Notice, I am not claiming that they are in any way malicious, nor that their proponents have any bad intention. What I am saying is that it is the very nature of these digital intermediator to skew the objective reality into a subjective one…;
  • technologies like VR and AR (plus Mixed Reality) are clearly tools to bridge the cyberspace with the world of atoms. They are getting more and more seamless and it will become more and more difficult to distinguish what is physical reality from what is artificial, and the problem is not just a consequence of the bettering of the supporting technologies, rather it is because the artificial world is becoming an integral part of the real world, we are reaching the point that the real world cannot exists without the artificial one;
  • products and services are more and more (and will be even more so) a melange of physical and digital and it will become impossible to have one without the other. More than that. There has always been a dream for the market of one, customisation to the individual client/user, there has always been a strive towards the creation of seamless interfaces, making the use of products features as straightforward, natural, as possible. What better way to achieve this than by “embedding” the user in the product? Digital Twins make this real, Industry 4.0 is pursuing this goal as well (and it is not by chance that digital twins are becoming a pillar in Industry 4.0). Since we are “individual” when we become part of a product we are also creating an individual reality of that product that is different from the one of likewise products “embedding” different individuals. I have used the word embedding to give the idea, although the correct one is “symbioses”. We will be more and more in a symbiotic relation with (several) products and likewise (several) successful products will be in symbioses with us;
  • finally, all of the above is not happening all of a sudden, but in tiny steps that defy our perception. Think about the smartphone: in some 20 years it has changed from a curiosity for some top echelon business people to an integral part of everybody’s life and we cannot pinpoint a date when this transition took place.

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.