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Cognitive Digital Twins: bridging minds and machine – I: Pervasive Knowledge

The dream of sharing knowledge between a brain and a machine may become reality, and may turn into a nightmare. Image credit: Nature Biotechnology, Eric Smalley

I remember when I was young (that was a long, long time ago), computers were perceived as electronic brains with a mixed feeling of expectation and fear. As a boy having to spend hours on books I dreamt of the possibility to download the knowledge from the books into my brain in a more efficient way. I didn’t know of Brain Computer Interfaces (probably they were not there at the time), nor of implantable chips but the idea of a seamless sharing of knowledge was there.

In these 60 years (yes, that was 60 years ago… and it was called cybernetics) artificial intelligence has progressed by leaps and bounds and today it has become pervasive although, up to now, it has remained clearly separated from our brain: true, we access plenty of artificial intelligence, most of the time without even perceiving it is there like when we talk to an IVR or look at a digital camera screen to take a shot (the camera uses AI to identify what has to be on focus…).

Brain Computer Interfaces and implantable chips exist, although they are a far cry from the knowledge prosthetic I imagined 60 years ago and they will probably remain so for a long time. However, in these last decades, and in continuous acceleration in terms of function and widespread use, we have the Web and this has become a sort of knowledge prosthetic. If I need to know something I turn to the Web. The smartphone took the world knowledge to my fingertips, whether it is the date of the battle of Austerlitz or the instruction to operate the microwave I just bought (by the way, appliances come with a single sheet of instruction containing a QR code that, through your smartphone, will take you to the on-line instruction manual plus so much more…). Hence we are now in a world where:

  • knowledge is stored in the web and it is continuously expanding (if it is not on the web it does not exist!)
  • access to knowledge has become as easy as clicking on a mouse or tapping on the smartphone screen
  • artificial intelligence sorts out information and pushes it to our eyes
  • (part of the) knowledge is becoming embedded in processes, in function and application. When we need to do something we use an app and it is the app that will autonomously have/gather the knowledge required
  • we cannot avoid using the web to access knowledge because the expansion of knowledge is so fast, and the knowledge space so huge, that the old ways of using books simply cannot work anymore.

Knowledge has become pervasive, it is captured in the cyberspace and made accessible through applications (like search engines) that are deciding what we will be seeing.

In the following post I will expand on this as a way to introduce to the discussion planned in the Digital Reality Initiative webinar on September 29th (you can register here). The discussant, Derrick de Kerckhove and Patrick Henz, will be addressing the societal and ethical aspects arising from this pervasive knowledge and in particular those connected to the use of Cognitive Digital Twins.

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.