‘Digital twins will save lives and transform how we live and work’

25 Oct 2023

Frank Diana. Image: TCS

We speak to TCS principal futurist Frank Diana about the potential of digital twin technology to disrupt business and other facets of daily human life.

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Earlier this year, when we looked at some of the trends that would shape the future of the metaverse in 2023, experts pointed out digital twins – essentially a digital copy of a real-world item – as one of them.

But while some of the hype around the metaverse itself may have died down for the moment, largely overshadowed by recent advances in generative artificial intelligence, digital twin technology is very much here to stay because of its potential, like AI, to be a harbinger of transformation to a variety of sectors.

According to Frank Diana, principal futurist at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), digital twin technology warrants attention in our society today because of the “constant change and uncertainty” we face.

“A digital twin of a city could help local governments prepare and plan for disasters, while a digital twin of a human heart could help doctors predict the impact of new drugs or surgical techniques,” he explains. “Digital twins will save lives, make it easier for businesses to experiment and innovate, and transform many facets of how we live and work.”

Leveraging a range of technologies, from Internet of Things (IoT) and AI to augmented and virtual reality, digital twins can replicate or simulate physical objects, processes or even people in a virtual environment.

“Once created, digital twins can be tested against different scenarios and desired outcomes to simulate, predict and improve real-world activities,” adds Diana, who is a frequent speaker and expert on the subject.

Healthcare, research and challenges

Experts have discussed how this technology can shake up networks and manufacturing, while the EU is working to make a digital twin of the Earth to predict climate impacts.

And according to a recent TCS Digital Twindex study, digital twin technology is poised to revolutionise healthcare and everyone involved in it, from patients and doctors to researchers and even administrators.

For instance, Diana said that doctors will be able to access a digital twin of a patient to understand potential future risks they might face.

“If a patient has a health emergency, an emergency room doctor might begin looking at a digital twin of their body while the patient is still enroute in an ambulance, diagnosing possible problems and solutions so that they can focus on life-saving action as soon as possible,” he says.

“In medical research, digital twins will be used to test new drug formulations or surgical techniques without touching a living being. New technologies will even allow researchers to use a digital twin of a heart, for instance, to 3D print a physical version that a medical student could practice on.”

Essentially, Diana thinks that the promise of digital twins for healthcare is that doctors will have “more information, more quickly” than ever before.

But if the tech is so revolutionary, then why isn’t it here yet? Diana identifies two primary hurdles in the way of digital twin advancement: regulation and security concerns.

“Building digital twins means gathering and processing large amounts of data, which will need to be properly governed, masked and virtualised,” he says.

“These challenges will become more complex over time as new regulations, especially around AI, emerge, with different countries focusing on different criteria. However, AI also may be the answer, with the ability to act at the speed and scale required to process and secure data and evolve in real-time as new regulations or threats arise.”

Applications and the way forward

While we wait for the sector to overcome these challenges, there are some interesting ways digital twins are being deployed already, such as in high performance automotive settings.

A digital twin of a car, Diana argues, can help prevent mechanical issues by predicting which parts may fail and recommending preventative maintenance before an actual problem arises.

“In autonomous driving, digital twins can be a mechanism to further train AI ‘drivers’ by simulating different traffic conditions and collision scenarios, and determining the best response,” he explains.

Not only cars, but digital twin technology can also help us manage resources and create more sustainable living conditions.

“In smart cities, for instance, digital twins of construction projects will allow architects and planners to predict and avoid issues that could delay completion and result in extra waste,” Diana goes on.

“As goods go in and out of a city, digital twins can trace the carbon footprint of each product, from manufacturing to consumption, identifying inefficiencies, optimising transportation routes, reducing packaging waste and improving inventory management.

“Currently, water conservation can be a big problem because leaks may go unnoticed for long periods of time. With digital twins, city officials would know where leaks can happen and how they can be fixed in real-time.”

For digital twins to work beyond its current, relatively limited applications, Diana thinks that the ability to store and process large amounts of data is crucial.

“This data processing may take place within a company’s data centre, the cloud or on edge/IoT devices it may be using. As a result, organisations need to have the ability to move data from one place to another quickly, at scale and securely,” he explains.

“Organisations may need to adopt one or more clouds to obtain the computing power necessary for digital twins and they will certainly need internal or external IT experts to manage and maintain the process throughout.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic