In a few years from now, we will have ‘digital twins’, a virtual facsimile of ourselves that will serve as our digital personal secretaries – that’s according to futurist and technology theorist John Smart. Smart, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, explains to Metro about our cybernetic future.
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According to your prevision, we will have digital twins in a few years from now. What does it mean exactly?
A personal software agent, or digital twin, is an informational simulation of your values, interests, goals, and eventually, even your personality. It is a software system that has a crude model of you, in order to better serve you. You could call it a “butler” or “secretary” or “agent”, but just like a butler has a good mental simulation of who you are and what you care about, so will your software agent, which is why we can call it a “digital twin”.
Can we compare them with those virtual characters in the movie “Her”?
The female personal operating system in “Her” would be a good example. But just like professional people often prefer to use their real names on social networks, while kids and casual users often use avatar names, I expect many professional people will prefer to use an avatar that is a rough model of themselves, rather than one that takes another form. For example, if you use your personal software agent to screen your calls or do simple emails for you when you are busy or asleep, some people will prefer their agent to look and act like them in these interactions. Others will prefer it to look like someone else, but it won’t be only an agent, but a kind of “twin”.
When will we see the first signs of a virtual personal agent?
The ability to talk to the web, the way we saw Alex Trebeck talk to IBM’s Watson computer on the Jeopardy! quiz show in 2011, when for the first time a conversational computer beat the two best humans on the planet, will be on our phones by the end of the decade. What you see on Google Now or Siri or Cortana will get more powerful in the next five years.
So, our smartphone systems can be considered a kind of digital twin?
Yes. So is all the information in your cloud-based email (all the things you ever write), your blog, and your Facebook page. If you died tomorrow, your friends might use your Facebook page to leave remembrances. There is a startup, Eterni.me, that is trying to turn all your digital information to make a software agent that will speak to your family and friends about you when you are gone. I think they’re still a few years too early to make a powerful twin, but only a few. They have the right idea.
What are the main benefits of having a computer-based version of us?
The “natural language understanding” technology behind these conversational software platforms can be used to scan your emails, and listen in on what you are saying. That allows them to make a semantic and values map of the words and things you care about. Software agents, offered by large information companies like Google, and by open source independents, can use those maps to find others on the web who have similar interests to you, and help you meet them or do business with them. Perhaps there are ten people in the world, who are thinking about doing the exact same thing you are, in business, for fun, or as a social action, right now. If your digital twin has a map of your values and current interests, it can help you find those people, and do productive things with them. It can also guide you every day toward better information sources, purchases, social actions, and entertainment. Companies or countries that don’t reflect your values can be boycotted by your twin, which will send out messages telling those companies why they are being boycotted, for example, because they score low in sustainability, or give too much pay to their CEOs versus their workers, compared to their competitors.
And what about our political and emotional decisions?
Eventually, twins will help us in our political decisions as well, protecting our values and lobbying for us better than we can ourselves. You won’t have to do boycotting or lobbying thinking or behavior, you can let your twin do it for you. You can guide or teach it as much or as little as you want, using conversation. Every year it will get smarter and more helpful. Digital hardware and software are the fastest-improving things on the planet right now. And about the emotional side, we already have software that can detect the emotion in our voice (“prosody”) so that the twin can know to speak more calmly and compassionately when we are upset or angry, help cheer us up and connect us with others when we are down, etc. Emotional maps, like values maps, exist today, and are becoming better.
Are we psychologically ready to interact with a digital twin?
Most of us hate using many of our gadgets, because we can’t talk to them. We would all like to be able to buy gadgets that we can talk to, and when we shout at them, we want that information to go right back to the designers, so they make them simpler and smarter. Companies that don’t offer the ability to give verbal feedback, via twins, will lose out to companies that do. Particularly our youth, the next generation, expect our gadgets to get better every year. They have no patience for stupid gadgets, as they grown up seeing digital systems improving.
Tell us about privacy. Can someone steal my digital twin and take all the info about me and my bank data?
All complex systems, whether they are living things or technological things, need privacy, and have immune systems to protect them, and to make transparent the bad actors, which are almost always just a small percentage of the population. Most people try to be good, and to do good. The more digital the world gets, the easier it is to use digital systems to protect privacy where it matters (private conversations, personal and trade secrets, national security) and to grow transparency everywhere else, so that we can more easily track down bad actors after they have committed crimes. But we don’t always think about building good privacy, transparency and security systems until a crisis occurs. Then we have to play catch-up, and build better systems. The challenge is to make these subjects as important as innovation and growth to our technologists, politicians, and the public. We are often too busy creating the next thing to think as carefully as we should about these subjects.
Why do we like online life so much that sometimes we forget about real life?
Because the digital world IS also real life. The division isn’t between “online” and “real” but rather, “virtual” and “physical”. Both are real. When you sit and imagine what you will do, you are engaging in the virtual world (simulation). Also when you use computers, or watch a movie. Both the virtual and the physical are very real. Consciousness, the highest form of human virtual activity, is very real. You don’t ridicule your own consciousness, so you shouldn’t ridicule the virtual world. In fact, the better our virtual world gets, the more we can use it to do better things in the physical world. It is also true that we spend more and more time in the virtual world (our thoughts, and computers) because that world is very fast, inexpensive, and resource efficient, whereas the physical world is slow, expensive, and wasteful of resources.
Aren’t you afraid that one day our digital avatars will replace us?
If our digital systems are increasingly good copies of us, then it isn’t really “them” replacing “us” is it? Rather, it is another version of “you.” Humans have been learning how to put the best of ourselves into our technologies since the dawn of humanity.