We’ve been talking this year about the rise of digital twins for very large valuable physical assets – planes, trains, automobiles, mining equipment, buildings and public infrastructure – and the predicted impact on large asset maintenance and increased productivity. What would happen if digital twins were used for humans?
A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical object. It includes the model of the physical object, data from the object, a unique one-to-one correspondence to the object and the ability to monitor the object.
If we put it into a human context, a digital twin (or digital doppelgänger) would collect, protect and use an individual’s ‘life data,’ including their history and environment. It would become a virtual lifelong model of that person. It’s possible that millions of individual human 'digital twins' could be created by 2020, as a product offered by a commercial enterprise.
Commissioned by parents, a digital doppelgänger could be conceived when a baby is, holding their family genetic history. Their mother’s ultrasound scan could initiate the data lake, which then becomes the individual – well, their digital version.
As the individual grows and ages, their digital doppelgänger collects data along the way. It becomes their lifetime medical record. It becomes their photo library of happy snaps, from birth to selfies. It encapsulates their physical existence from where they live; what they do, eat or prefer; to how much money and resources they have to support their life.
Add in external context – politics, weather, socio-economic events, as well as the individual’s psychological and behavioural influences, particularly data about their family, friends and communities.
This is the sort of data we are all giving up in copious streams today to social media, ecosystems we interact with, and the IoT network – data that enables 'nature v nurture' analytics. A digital doppelgänger will have a better memory than the person or their family.
Will this be our future?
While this all sounds exciting, it does raise the question as to why we would actually do this. There are many viable reasons, but there are also considerable hurdles to jump over.
If we think about possible practical applications, the early stages could trial the use of specific treatments, drugs and/or physical interventions on your digital doppelgänger.
As the product cycle evolves with more data and an ever more sophisticated analytics environment, it could be used to test complex and risky life choices – what would happen if you took that job, moved to that city, married that person, had a baby or took up meditation or golf?
The commercial considerations, however, are extensive. Privacy and access protection are obvious ones. Who owns your digital twin? What if it is hacked? What are the privacy considerations around collecting contextual data on families, friends and community, to complement your personal data?
The usual ‘big brother’ issues come into play. What if governments, employers, insurers, partners and so on have access to your digital doppelgänger? What if it’s used to access your passport or bank accounts?
Who would you trust to buy the digital doppelgänger service or product from – government or private sector operators? Who would you trust to hold the Swiss bank account or cyber-vault for your digital self?
Pricing is interesting, and would probably need to be high to underpin the security and analytics required. If it weren’t priced at the ‘high-end,’ then you should assume that’s because your data is going to be monetised in other ways, which undermines the degree of confidence you could have in the vendor assuring privacy and control of your digital doppelgänger data.
On the other hand, in this emerging digital world, there are naïve consumers who would probably sign up to have a digital doppelgänger without understanding a basic economic principle: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ And that’s worrying. What will it cost for the lifetime service? Is this like life insurance or medical cover; something you have from life to death?
The digital doppelgänger falls into the valuable sensitive personal service range, akin to cryogenics or the lifetime medical record. The scenarios for consideration are even broader – can you place it into a virtual community, to interact on your behalf with other digital doppelgängers?
Then there’s the philosophical dilemma: ‘how real is my digital doppelgänger and is it more ‘real’ than me?’
Will you be a fast mover?
Much of the data needed to conceive your first digital doppelgänger is probably ‘up there’ in the ‘internet cloud’ already, and it grows every time we act in the digital world – buy, sell, inquire, search, upload a selfie, etc.
As soon as a digital doppelgänger is offered to the market, there will inevitably be a fast take-up from technology first movers. The idea of 10 million digital doppelgängers by 2020 is only constrained today by the (un)availability of the service.
Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she has served as a CIO in global enterprises, held VP and GM roles in consulting and technology firms, worked as a hands-on enterprise agile coach, an innovation lead and a digital transformation director.