Home / Blog / Opening a Pandora’s box: Personal Digital Twins

Opening a Pandora’s box: Personal Digital Twins

Painting of Pandora opening a jar, thus exposing the world to a slate of troubles, concocted by Zeus that wanted to punish Prometheus’ stealing of fire from the heavens. Although Pandora promptly closed the lid it was not possible to recover all that escaped. Image credit: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881. Wikipedia

Some days ago Derrick de Kerckhove and I presented a webinar on the Future of Digital Twins. You can access the recording here.

Part of the discussion focussed on the raise and expected growth of personal digital twins, PDTs.  These are models of people, like you and me, that can be used in a variety of ways, like:

  • representing the physiology of the body, keeping track of medical exams, prescriptions, diseases,… This information can be used to evaluate the meaning of variation in physiological data, like the ones harvested through wearable on heart beats, respiration rate, blood oxygenation, electrical heart activity,…, and raise red flags. There is a very important research activity going on in this area. The (health) PDT can be used in perspective for both monitoring and simulation of the effect of a cure, as a sentinel to provide awareness to its physical twin on a risky situation and advice on what to do. The (health) PDT could interact with other PDTs to assess a global/local risk in an epidemic situation, help in detecting the spread of an epidemic and raise personal awareness of risky behaviours in a specific context;
  • representing the skills and knowledge (often called Cognitive Digital Twins). This information can be used as a way to mediate between the personal knowledge and the one available in the cyberspace, acting as a filter to access needed knowledge in an effective way (creating a knowledge representation that is understandable by the person given the knowledge “owned”, e.g. all information gathered on the web is presented in a language known by the person, technical info are pruned restricting to the ones that can be understood…), acting as a proxy roaming the knowledge space -in the cyberspace- to identify gaps with respect to what is needed here and now. These two aspects are addressed by the KaaS (Knowledge as a Service) project launched by the Digital Reality Initiative.
  • acting as a proxy of a person, e.g. to exploit that person’s knowledge and experience in a specific area (the CDT is instantiated into a chatbot that will become a virtual interface to that person’s knowledge). An example of this is the cloning of UBS Chief Economist, Daniel Kalt, to provide a real time assistant to UBS clients. The service is delivered through IBM Watson AI computer.  Although this may be a very convenient way of exploiting one’s knowledge -basically you can deliver it simultaneously everywhere in the world!- it raises some very tricky issues:
    – as your impersonator interacts with the users of your knowledge it acquires more knowledge and will rapidly diverge from “you” and become “more knowledgeable” than you;
    – a third party, may claim ownership on your CDT, like your employer, and use it to its own advantage. Think about current obligations that some companies are enforcing on their employees, claiming rights for activity they are performing at work. An AI monitoring system could acquire the knowledge of employees by observing what they do, and how they do it,  on the job and creating their CDTs, thereafter exploiting them to the company’s benefit;
    – who is responsible for the actions of a proxy? A proxy is mirroring the knowledge and skill of a person at time “zero” but this mirroring is not certifiable in the sense that the decision processes of the physical twin (the person) and the one of the proxy (may) differ.  Furthermore, the interactions of the proxy with the environment are creating a divergence between the physical twin and the proxy. A proxy operates through AI and it brings to the fore all the issues of responsibility attached to autonomous AI;
    – who owns a CDT? It might seem straightforward to attribuite the ownership to the related physical twin but the landscape is fuzzy. This goes beyond the responsibility aspect to extend in the economic and value space.
  • a gateway separating the private space of a person to the social space. This use is crucial and goes hand in hand with the need on one side to preserve a personal ownership and decision space  whilst at the same time making it possible to leverage economic and societal benefits. A clear example is the application of PDT in the health space where the sensitive personal data need to be protected but at the same time those data once shared create an economic benefit (like accelerating the development of drugs, vaccines…) as well as a societal benefit (identifying risk levels, identifying actions to avoid the spread of an epidemic). Notice that in several instances, the sharing of data creates a positive feedback, that is the person sharing data can benefit from the global data analytics.

The points raised in the webinar have generated several reactions and the point of this post is to further stimulate discussion to generate awareness and contribute to the development of a global framework for the use of PDTs.

I start the discussion by including a comment received from Patrick Henz:

thanks a lot for your interesting webinar and answering my question! I think you have a good point that you may have to authorize your Personal Digital Twin. Not only from an ethical point of view, but also as future laws (based on the European GDPR, but also the California Consumer Data Privacy Act), as they may develop into this direction. Interesting to see first court decisions.
If you have to approve your Digital Twin, for example for usage after retirement at the company, or as heritage for your children, I might expect that such DTs, might not be a realistic twin, but somehow a better version of ourselves. This similar to Instagram or Facebook, where we also only like to show the best parts of ourselves, hoping that friends and family perceive us only as we want them to perceive us.
Not only a problem, but companies could use this also in the benefit of the employee (and the organisation). For example, if each employee would have a kind of DT, employees may perceive such a character in a slightly better version of themselves. For example, HR may show this DT in a version where, it already took all annual trainings, and with this is slightly better prepared for the position. Employees may see this as inspiration, or even as subconscious pressure (Keeping up with your Digital Twin, instead of the “Joneses”).
Looking forward to your comments and contributions on this topic.

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.

One comment

  1. Hello Roberto,

    Thanks for this post! A very interesting and inspiring resume of the topic (of course you could also write a whole book about this). Maybe in a separate blog post you may explain in more detail the difference between PDT and CDT.

    From a legal point, it will be interesting to see potential court decisions. For example, the GDPR includes the right to be forgotten. For example, Daniel Kalt may have approved the usage of his CDT as chatbot, but if he might change his opinion tomorrow, the company may have to disable the chatbot. This maybe different from the permission of a model to indefinitely publish a photo of him/her. But this depends also, how judges would interpret the law. As far as I know, all movies who recreated actors (not only their outer appearance, but their way of acting (which included cognitive interpretation of the role), avoided potential court decisions, as they asked for the permission of the heirs.

    Different would be the recreation of a public figure, like for example Salvador Dali: https://youtu.be/BIDaxl4xqJ4 or figure which lived a longer time ago. These figures had never been a twin, but a recreation of secondary information (biography), primary information (letters, speeches, decisions, etc.), including video and audio material.

    In the video you see a fitting quote by Dali: “When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity.” Of course, this definition might limit the allowance to use PDTs or CDTs. 😉 This as philosophy, based to law, it would mean that a genius would have less rights than an average person.