Digital Twins: Virtual Life in the Real World

8 minute read

“We will never make productivity gains like we did with the Industrial Revolution.”

This statement, made at a lecture I recently attended, really stuck with me because I disagreed with it so strongly.

This is not a ‘more of the same’ moment in history. It is a watershed moment. For the first time ever, machines don’t just do work; they can think about how to do that work more efficiently. We’re heading into the Age of the Augmented Human, where physical processes and procedures can be replicated in a digital world running simulations based on real-time data from the real world. Enter the Digital Twin.

Digital Twin Simulations Optimize Reality

A digital twin is the replication of a real-world object in the digital world. The digital object is using data from the real world to model behavior. It allows people (and machines) to predict, simulate and analyze what will happen with the real-world object.

A couple examples:

Healthcare: Using data gathered about a patient, doctors can create the patient’s digital twin and use it to assess treatment options. They can run as many digital simulations as necessary to find the most effective treatment for the real-world patient.

Manufacturing: Digital twins can be used to predict equipment failure by running analytics against equipment specifications combined with real-time/real-world data collected by IoT sensors placed on the functioning equipment.

In medicine, manufacturing and business, the ability to simulate real-world outcomes based on digital objects is a game changer for how we think about everything from product design to community health pandemic planning and emergency response.

In the next 5-10 years, we will see the emergence of Mirrorworld, a concept fascinatingly fleshed out in Kevin Kelly’s recent Wired cover story. When fully realized, mirrorworld will have a digital representation of every physical object in the real world. “A 1:1 map of almost unimaginable scope.”

Buildings, vehicles, furniture, light bulbs, washing machines, humans. Entire cities will have digital twins used to constantly simulate possible outcomes. They will be continually assessing traffic patterns, energy consumption, population flow, and resources such as salt for icy roads to optimize these things in real time, making life better for the humans who live there. Based on detected air quality, buildings will tell maintenance before an air filter needs to be changed. Humans will have digital twins performing repetitive tasks, lightening our workload, and even improving our health by advising on diet and exercise based on variables like “number of sitting meetings at work” or “dietary changes required for new medications.” From how we live to how our bodies work, we’ll be able to tweak small behaviors and observe the possible outcomes based on historical data and predictive analysis.

Every Company Becomes A Data Company

Mirrorworld’s impact on business will be huge. Even businesses focused on the real world will face digital demands like never before. Let’s take gyms as an example: By combining wearables, IoT and digital twins, every customer’s exercise experience will be wildly different, enabling everyone to access expert personal trainers. With their “science-backed, technology-tracked, coach-inspired group workouts,” Orangetheory is just a small taste of what’s to come. Next, Alexa will be telling you how to improve your yoga pose based on the IoT sensors in your clothes.

Business goals expand beyond optimizing the human customer experience. People will demand great service that simultaneously enables their digital twins to do even more for them. Service industries will need to accommodate real people and their digital representations. Every bit of data collected about a person or company becomes fuel to improve its digital twin – to make it a more accurate, functional representation. Now a business doesn’t just provide a service; it must also provide the data to optimize the client’s twin. Every company becomes a data company.

The Dark Side of Digital Twins

Like every phase thus far in our global digital transformation, mirrorworld will bring unintended and undesired repercussions. Our digital twins will know us better than anyone, elevating the prospect of identity theft to a whole new level of terror. A compromised digital twin will be exposing all your information: financial, medical, work and relationships, down to the people and objects you are interacting with in the real world. Imagine a building’s digital twin turning against you to lock the doors as you approach or turn out the lights everywhere you go. Now imagine a traffic light turning green for you while staying green for the cross traffic, or a healthcare simulation distorting the reactions medications will have with your physiology. Your digital twin says you’re safe, and so you proceed . . . with disastrous consequences.

We will live in a world where digital twins can be weaponized against humans. Cybersecurity is the variable that will determine whether mirrorworld technology is 5-10 years out or 10-20 years, depending on how fast we can build trusted systems. Blockchain may be just the distributed security tool needed to make that shorter timeframe a reality.

Even with its inherent dangers, mirrorworld will usher in a new era, fundamentally changing how we think about work, ourselves, and the world in which we live. Digital twins may make life easier in some respects and more entertaining in others, but we will always have to balance out their value with their risk. Can we make this brave new world more just than its predecessors? How will we eradicate the historical bias of data that propagates the social challenges of institutional racism and inequality? This is a battle already being fought by those working to harness the burgeoning power of artificial intelligence.

Responsibly Raising Your Digital Twin

The rise of mirrorworld will bring about a massive cultural and economic shift fueled by the data everything around us is creating for our digital twins (the citizens of mirrorworld). Companies will have to grapple with their expanding roles: moving from service providers/makers of things/producers of information to distributors of data. Our digital twins will need constant care and feeding with data, simulation and validation. And all this effort results in a new way of interacting with each other. The data we produce, the data we consume, manifests into our twin. It’s already started happening.

Congratulations! It’s a . . . clone? That’s right. Your digital twin has already been born; you just can’t use him/her/them yet. Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and countless other technology vendors are already collecting all the data that is your twin. I recommend you start preparing today. The data you produce and consume now is forming your digital twin. It’s time to ask yourself: Who do I want my digital twin to be? Reflect on your digital behaviors to see if what you are doing matches who you want to be – in the real world and the virtual one.


About Tim

Tim Kulp took an unconventional path to his tech career, so it makes sense that his tech career is anything but conventional. A homegrown Maryland boy, Tim has always been captivated by what makes us uniquely human: art, religion, storytelling. These are the things he studied in college before “a series of coincidences led to an accident,” his first IT job.

Now, whether working with startups, global brands, advertisers or healthcare providers, he pushes clients to find the technology that makes them more creative, more productive, more human. As our VP of Innovation & Strategy, he’s known throughout the Mid-Atlantic as the guy who makes tech people-centric.

When Tim isn’t working or spending time with his family, he’s still working. Honing his storytelling craft, mentoring up-and-coming professionals, or reading up on game design and theory. That’s how it is when your job is also your calling. In the era of artificial intelligence, Tim’s crusade to make us more human can’t be confined to business hours.