Monday, August 08, 2022

Human Digital Twins

by Richard Peterson 

Earlier this year I read a news article which reported on the European Union’s plans to construct a full digital replica of the Earth to be completed by 2030. The replica incorporates a technology called digital twins which essentially is a virtual copy of any object. One may think of these objects primarily as a noun:  a person, place, or thing.

As I read the article, I recalled World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab’s words that in the near future we should expect a fusion between our technological and biological worlds.

Digital twin technology is commonly used in manufacturing facilities. Take, for example, a cutting machine which has been fitted with sensors that continually feeds data to a target computer. The target computer creates a virtual copy of its source whereby, over time, the replica is able to predict what impact different variables (e.g., speed of operation, material types cut, maintenance schedule, etc.) would have on the machine. Digital twin technology helps to anticipate the behavior of the cutting machine and helps prevent issues related to malfunctions.

A great deal of literature exists which proposes extending digital twin technology to humans. The sensors discussed range from eyeglasses which interact with the Metaverse to cell phones, and, ultimately, sensors embedded within the human body. The World Economic Forum expects digital twin technology will extend to humans.  What if salvation of the earth includes making every human on earth an input?

A digital profile of you most likely exists today. Have you ever questioned why, after conducting online research for a product – a lawn mower for example – that over the next several days lawn mower ads fill your browser? Or perhaps wondered if Seri had eavesdropped on your conversation because ads related to something you had just discussed begin to appear in your online feeds? Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Should we find this to be invasive we are able to turn off our computers and put down our phones.

Back in April I had expressed concerns about human digital twinning in a blog post which I did not publish. Later that July I reconsidered posting it as I read the World Economic Forum had partnered with China to digitally transform the world’s cities through use of digital twin technology.

Then last week this article – Biology meets AI – reminded me of the direction digital twin technology appears to be headed.  (The World Economic Forum’s session the article refers to may be found here along with news coverage here.) 

Since digital twin technology continues to appear in my news feeds, I decided to publish the piece I originally wrote on the EU’s Destination Earth:

Destination Earth & the Human Digital Twin

 I recently noticed a news article which sparked my attention:  EU to develop a digital twin of Earth to better predict climate impact.  The same was reported by the World Economic Forum a year ago.  The mention that human activity would be a data input raised in my mind some questions.

Since I work in the field of information technology, I am familiar with the digital twin as it pertains to manufacturing machinery. A digital twin may be thought of as a virtualization of a real world physical object. IBM describes the digital twin as such:


“A digital twin is a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object. The object being studied — for example, a wind turbine — is outfitted with various sensors related to vital areas of functionality. These sensors produce data about different aspects of the physical object’s performance, such as energy output, temperature, weather conditions and more. This data is then relayed to a processing system and applied to the digital copy.”  

“Once informed with such data, the virtual model can be used to run simulations, study performance issues and generate possible improvements, all with the goal of generating valuable insights — which can then be applied back to the original physical object.”


Another area where the utilization of digital twin technology is useful is in health care where medical professionals have the ability to monitor patients’ implanted devices and take early action should the digital twin alert them of a potential issue.


What if this technology were to be extended to humans making our virtual selves inputs for other twins?  To a degree, this is already happening absent the biometric unique identifier - yet.


Futurist Jan Amkreutz in his book Digital Spirit writes extensively about the human digital twin and how its use will develop a collective consciousness and advance human evolution. 

Amkreutz’s “writes that the sensory interface between humans and their digital twins will be one which eliminates devices (p. 178) and also:


                The meaning of technology that connects human thought and digital knowledge, or the physical me and my DT [digital twin], on a higher level of understanding goes deeper than mere 'convenience', because ultimately this type of research will lead to a seamless connection of human thinking and digeality. The most 'user-friendly' computer interface is no interface at all. We are working to do just that…” (p. 329)


And again:


             Finally, biological evolution created a species that could manipulate its environment and had some rational faculties, and now the cutting edge of evolution actually changed from biological evolution into something carried out by one of its own creations, Homo sapiens, and is represented by technology. In the next epoch this species that ushered in its own evolutionary process - that is, its own cultural and technological evolution, as no other species has - will combine with its own creation and will merge with its technology. At some level that's already happening, even if most of us don't necessarily have them yet inside our bodies and brains, since we're very intimate with the technology - it's in our pockets. We've certainly expanded the power of the mind of the human civilization through the power of its technology. We are entering a new era. I call it "the Singularity." It's a merger between human intelligence and machine intelligence that is going to create something bigger than itself. It's the cutting edge of evolution on our planet.” (p. 377)


Amkreutz book, whether or not he intended it, issues a warning:


“Digitally controlled 'smart' weapons and digitally guided weapon carriers will know and recognize their trajectories and their targets. . .Digital algorithm, the products of simulation and programming, will make the need for human judgment on the battlefield the exception rather than the rule. That would leave the war in the hands of a few human conductors of an orchestra of digital twins. No logistics for the physical movement of troops, no supply lines to protect: just a clean 'surgical procedure that eliminates the enemy. What happens, however, when the enemy has the same digital capability? Where are the living soldiers to eliminate? Who is the enemy? Civilians that have the wrong mindset?” (p. 386)

 I expect what I view as a warning may be another person’s positive.

 How close are digital twins to becoming reality? The World Economic Forum envisions a fusion between the digital and biological worlds. The WEF is working with China to help with the urban transformation of cities, i.e., smart cities.   One of the more overt portrayals of the human digital twin originates from China’s Anyang Institute of Technology which closely resembles Jan Amkreutz writings of the Digital Spirit.

 The European Commission indicates that Destination Earth or DestinE  is the product of two initiatives, the Green Deal and the Digital Strategy: 


Destination Earth is at the crossroads between two major European endeavours: the Green Deal and the Digital Strategy. The initiative will contribute to achieving the objectives of the twin transition, green and digital.”

 A component of the Commission’s Digital Strategy is to establish a personal digital twin for every European citizen.  An attendee (by invitation only) of the Commission-organized workshop – MyDigitalTwin: Trusted Personal Digital Twins in a Transformed Society – summarized outcomes which include:


“Personal Digital Twins are seen as providing a new technological edge by creating a digital alter-ego to all citizens, the ‘other digital me’.”


“PDTs are also considered instrumental in the fostering of Smart Cities and Local Digital Twins (usually clusters of DT mirroring a specific, local, reality).”


“The EU Next Generation and the Green/Digital Transition Strategies: data and their leverage both by institutions and single citizens are a must to support the transition.”

One aspect of the human digital twin is a relationship between self-measurement and social credit score systems. 

In the EU there exists a carbon reduction app which rewards citizens for behavior modification. The EU is known for its “carrot and stick” approach. What happens as people decide to opt out of digitization? What happens as the digital twinning of humans goes global?