In the future, everyone and everything will have digital twins

In the metaverse, digital twins will represent us, our inventory of things, our homes, and cities, allowing us to move between the real and virtual world

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Mon 9 May 2022, 11:18 PM

You are riding an Ola Electric scooter. You suddenly apply the brakes, which briefly sends the scooter airborne, before it crashes. You end up in hospital with a broken left arm and 16 stitches on the right one. You convince your father that it was not your fault and that the scooter accelerated when it should have slowed down. This angers your father who takes to Twitter to complain about Ola’s faulty regenerative braking system.

Turns out the electric scooter is a connected device that sends real-life data into the cloud in real-time. Ola analyses the data to counter your father’s claims. The company even shares the data on Twitter to back its claim that you were speeding. This is precisely what happened to a customer in Eastern India.

It is a separate matter that this got Ola into a spot for breach of data privacy. What went somewhat unnoticed was the real-life telemetry data that Ola captures, which opens new possibilities for any manufacturer. Not just for defending itself against an angry customer.

With this streaming real-life data, companies are on to something bigger. They are sowing seeds of digital twins as a natural evolution of the Internet of Things. Some are already building them by combining 3D Modelling with data from sensors. A digital twin is where real-world physics meets data in the virtual world. It can digitally transform complex products from some of the oldest industries.

Consider a container ship that needs to be repaired. It has an unimaginable array of moving parts, outsourced to different contractors. Its digital double would be a complete representation of all its data and physical attributes, allowing shipbuilders to perform maintenance services and test its performance in changing sea states. Shipping is under scrutiny for carbon emissions. The digital twin can track carbon emissions of its physical twin in an authentic manner.

Big brands are under pressure to make their products circular, to extend product life and reuse material resources. There is no easy way to measure circularity unless it is done at a product level. The digital twin can facilitate this, allowing entities such as recyclers to use the product knowledge for material recovery. Battery recyclers need to know the authenticity of a battery.

The battery’s digital twin can help trace it back to the mine from which Lithium was extracted. Potentially, digital twins will be born before a product is manufactured, as part of a digital-first strategy. The twin will continue to grow up, collecting data throughout the product life cycle.

Our connected wearables and apps are getting better at measuring our health and sleep patterns, forming our so-called quantified self. These data collections are forerunners of our own digital twins, which will learn to be more synchronized and better replicas of our physical selves, perhaps better versions of ourselves. We can interact with digital twins of inspiring leaders we cannot meet in the real world. Augmented reality allows for our 3D scans. We can already buy virtual clothes. Our digital twin can be anything we want to be. Gamers in massively immersive online games or those who spend nights playing Minecraft and Roblox know what this means.

In the metaverse, digital twins will represent us, our inventory of things, our homes, and cities, allowing us to move between the real and virtual world. This will make the metaverse far more nuanced and interesting. Some years ago, plenty of us spent hours playing the addictive social network game, Farmville. We grew tomatoes and harvested potatoes on our virtual farms. Today, I can take my farm to the metaverse by building its digital twin. Sensors for soil pH level and moisture send data to the digital twin, to monitor the farm for microclimate uncertainties. There is a lot of hype surrounding digital twins as the terminology is used indiscriminately. It is still a nebulous concept although some digital twin platforms have emerged. The diversity of input systems and information output makes it difficult to enforce standardization. Critics say that a digital twin is simply better organised data.

Between simple data schema and complex 3D models lies an entire spectrum on which digital twins are sprouting today. Some mirror components while others represent an asset like a wind turbine. Some focus on processes, while others on simulation. European scientists are building a digital twin of our planet to simulate the future of the Earth by mapping climate data in space and time and using AI modelling to predict climate risks.

Despite widespread efforts, the first generation of digital twins is dealing with adolescent problems. They will gradually use richer visualization and simulation, and advanced machine learning. Until then we will record our activities on our smartwatches, in preparation for the imminent virtual life, replete with digital twins.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies and Co-founder of NurtureAI. She tweets at @shaliniverma1

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