Of the many predictions that have been released for this year, none could potentially be more impactful to society as a whole than the modelling of biological organs and recreating anything, from the human heart, to a nose, to skin, in cyberspace, to help diagnose and predict health outcomes.
The above suggestion comes from Frank Diana, the principal futurist for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who, in an interview with IT World Canada late last month, stated that it is not beyond the realm of impossibility that a technology breakthrough known as digital twins will save thousands of lives, both human and animal, in 2023.
In addition, he said, a true twin of a human being will be created this year, and act as a digital representation of the body, and of behaviors such as choices around what to buy, who to vote for, and more.
It is not just the rapid advances of the underlying technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), 5G, sensors, advanced data analytics, 3D modeling and the Internet of Things (IoT), that makes these breakthroughs possible, said Diana, but the “fact that as they all come together, the possibility space widens.
“As the convergence of these technologies accelerates, the opportunities grow,” he said. “It’s really been an epiphany moment for me.”
That convergence is what makes digital twin technology, defined by MIT Sloan Management Review in an article that appeared last year as virtual replicas of physical entities and their interactions that consist of a combination of enabling technologies and analytics capabilities, so intriguing to Diana and others.
Its authors note that “digital twins are a combination of multiple enabling technologies, such as sensors, cloud computing, AI and advanced analytics, simulation, visualization, and augmented and virtual reality. Companies can use a customized mix of technologies, depending on their needs and expectations. What distinguishes digital twins and makes them so powerful is their ability to emulate human capabilities, support critical decision-making, and even make decisions on behalf of humans.”
Diana said they can be used to help deal with battling diseases – to attack cancer, for example, in ways that have never been used before – or to accelerate the ability to warehouse vaccines, not after a pandemic erupts, but before.
There are, he added, a number of TCS research labs that have created “digital noses, and digital skin and brains and hearts, and using digital representations of those organs in ways that allow us to explore how to solve problems.
“Even within the context of food, a digital banana can be used to understand what drives a banana to ripen too fast and spoil, and proactively be able to address that.” What that means is that digital twin technology can be used in solving not only food scarcity, he said, but also food waste.
It can also play a a major role when it comes to sustainability and the environment.
According to a TCS research paper, digital twin solutions can serve as a catalyst to improve the performance of power plants: “Power generation alone contributes to over 41 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, largely fueled by coal. Despite several sustainability actions set in motion, coal is expected to provide at least 22 per cent of global power even in 2040, accounting for nearly 68 per cent of emissions. Applying the right technologies will help thermal power plants reduce up to two gigatons of CO2 emissions.
“Digital twin solutions backed by IoT, AI, cloud, and advanced data analytics serve as catalysts to improve the performance of power plants across functions. These could include monitoring of equipment and processes, optimizing operations in real time, and improving availability. Digital twin solutions can assist in better operation and maintenance of applications such as boilers, gas turbines, flue gas desulfurization systems, selective catalytic reduction systems, and air preheaters.”
Diana said the building blocks that underpin these advancements and others are all in place and maturing: “And as they do, how we combine them in ways that create more and more innovation underlies this whole exponential world that we live in.”
Asked what it is like to be a futurist, he said, “I get that question all the time. And I start by saying, there’s no crystal ball – I can’t tell you what lottery ticket numbers to play. But to be a futurist in this day-and-age is just incredibly rewarding. One, because it’s one of those unique times in history where there’s so much changing across so many domains that the uncertainty level is very high.
“And so for a futurist to be focused across all those domains, trying to follow all the signals, and understand what those signals might mean to us, as a society, it’s rewarding. What’s even more rewarding – and I don’t know if the pandemic was the catalyst – is the attention that leaders around the world are paying to the future. More so than I’ve seen in the last 10 years. There is a real need for foresight and an understanding where these things might go.”