Your Digital Twin

The future will deliver a version of you to play with, constructed from your every online act.

Almost everything you do today leaves an electronic memory, a tiny little signal that you passed this way. Every Lyft journey, Google search history, Facebook like, iMessage and telephone call you took is digitized and stored forever. Your digital breadcrumbs can be found amongst your playlists, bank records, email meta-data, geolocation, subscriptions, contact lists, maps data, medical history and so on.

These tiny memories are almost irrelevant by themselves. One banking transaction reveals almost nothing about you. By looking at the patterns over hundreds and thousands of transactions, undertaken by millions of people, a window into humanity is opened. Research has shown that the signals left behind us as we click, swipe, film and buy in our online lives are more accurate in describing you than human judges. Banking records do reveal the degree to which you are sloppy or disciplined, creative or conservative. And companies are quite prepared to use these signals to form judgements about how you will show up at work, and decide whether to offer you a job or not.

While it may feel creepy, these technologies will neither slow down, nor will consumers stop using them. For example, in January 2016 Apple bought a startup company who developed technology to scan your face and detect your emotions. This will be used mostly to unlock your phone by looking at it - how convenient! Yet Apple were merely following Samsung, who in 2012 announced that the speed of typing, use of backspace keys and how much the device shakes, let them infer a user’s emotional state, with a view to have the phone respond to how you are feeling. Very likely these firms will use the data to help brands learn what cues in their ads trigger emotional responses. Your phone may know you better than you know yourself.

Digital twins

Soon, your online self will be brought together from the tiny fragments you leave behind, creating a digital twin. Your digital twin will have your personality and traits, interests and values. It will have access to your thoughts and feelings (from messages and email), your physical health and reactions (from wearables and smartphones), your reputation (from others' likes and comments on social media) and even your memories (from Instagram). It will know if you are straight or gay, who you voted for and the state of your bank account.

Your digital twin will be the most accurate mirror ever made. In a real sense it will enable you to take a wide look at yourself; or switch to see yourself through the eyes of others; or zoom in on your tiniest behavior. Your twin will be a resource to test your ideas for change. It could help you see into your own future. It could help you plan, and even coach you to stick with the plans (since it knows you better than anyone).

Digital twins have existed in engineering for some time. A digital twin is a computerized replica of a real-world physical asset, like a jet engine, or a nuclear power plant. Sensor feed back real time performance data creating a completely up-to-date version of the machine – even though it might be flying 10,000 miles away at 35,000 feet. A precise digital portrayal of the stresses, performance and future state of physical asset means maintenance and downtime costs can be reduced and failures predicted. New parts and processes can be tested and evaluated on the digital twin before manufacture and deployment in the physical world.

Twiddle your virtual knobs

So it will go for your digital twin. Play around and alter the settings of your twin's personality. Since we have population level data on health, relationship and wellbeingindices associated with personality, you can see what effect changing your settings might have. If you were more extroverted and more agreeable, what would happen to your dating success? If you turned the conscientious setting up would you become richer? (probably). Would you stand a better chance of landing a job? (probably).

So a twin will show you your future too. By mining the behavior and life outcomes from tens of thousands of people who share the same characteristics as you, its possible to demonstrate the range of positive life outcomes achieved by your successful doppelgängers. Equally, you can peer into the future to see how and why those who share your personality ended up in prison or became ill or grew unhappy. There would be no privacy concerns, since we could mine the data from thousands of people in aggregate, without identifying any one individual.

An obvious tool for a digital twin is as a relationship matching device. If you share your profile data with another person, you may be offered good odds for the success or failure of that relationship. You might get advice about how to smooth the rough parts of your personality to minimize clashes with the other person; or suggestions for productive changes to increase passion and fire. Existing matching tools have rough algorithms now, based on millions of data points collected in aggregate, but it reveals astonishingly useful advice for how to behave.

Coming sooner than we think

Right now your data sit isolated and unconnected. Privacy concerns (chiefly driven from the European Union) and a lack of common standards means there isn’t yet a master algorithm to bind your fragmentary digital reputation into a digital twin. But two possible futures are close:

In one, you lack agency over your digital twin. Your personal data is owned by companies supplying the hardware and software you use for free, and then sold to the highest bidder. In this world anonymity and privacy will be in demand but expensive – there will be no practical opt-out for ordinary people, which is why Google and Facebook are offering to pipe the internet to the world in unusual ways for free. In this world, your every engagement potentiates social engineering of Orwellian proportions.

In the second scenario, your personal data is yours. New companies will emerge that to allow you to ‘bank’ your data and curate it in the form of a digital twin. These companies could allow your digital twins to become your agent or avatar. You may have settings to rent parts of who you are to corporations, only revealing your preferences for specific purposes.

Either way, your digital twin exists, it just hasn't achieved coherence. But it will soon.

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