With new guidance for organisations to operate safely amid the pandemic, most of the advice is aimed at in-office separation and social distancing. Some guidance will be difficult to execute in this framework and, although in the short term it may be difficult or even impossible to have compliance in the medium term, this will stimulate a rethinking of interactions – such as process re-engineering and automation, both of which lead to increased use of technology.
Organisations are already developing affordable robots targeting SME, to ensure sanitation and for taking over menial tasks to reduce interaction among workers. However, a further push to adopt technology in “Phase Two” – which is expected to last for a while – is the need to provide a perception of safety in the interaction with the customers. This will be a competitive advantage in industries, including retail, hotels, entertainment. The use of robots for shop assistants and hotel concierges may become a differentiator and push adoption.
One of the technologies that businesses are increasingly using is “digital twins” to profile their customers. They trace their activity, perform data analytics on virtual communities to evaluate shopping and interest trends, and use this information for advertisement targeting and sometimes for targeted pricing. Increased availability of sensing, processing, storage, and analytics keep pushing towards the creation of customer’s records and these are the seeds for the implementation of “personal” digital twins.
The proponents of personal digital twins are ready to point out the implication of “personal” – it should refer both to the fact that the digital twin is mirroring person characteristics and that is controlled/owned by the person, or at least this is the Western culture interpretation. Currently, all implementations of personal digital twin have been made by companies with the implicit/explicit consent of customer (most often implicit).
A regulatory framework is needed and governments should take the lead in the definition of a framework. The current approach has been towards the limitation (GDPR) rather than the exploitation. Both are needed and the current epidemic can stimulate this. The creation of personal digital twins – an extension of the concept of personal identity that is now widely used – would have important applications in many areas, including a shift towards proactive healthcare. However, the main issues here are on privacy, control and eventually trust.
There is not currently a real implementation of personal digital twins. Organisations are using it for profiling, but this is just a small part of the overall data set characterising a digital twin. The development of personal digital twins is unlikely without an accepted/regulated framework. GDPR is usually applied in a restricted way and this basically hampers their development. In the context of the guidance around the current pandemic, personal digital twins may provide a way for effective tracing, but the very concept of tracing is looked upon with suspicion by several constituencies.
The fight against the pandemic is being played on several directions and technology has an important role to play. The re-engineering of supply and value chain will become a major topic in the post pandemic world, with technology – AI, data analytics, data lakes, robotics – involved. It will likely become one of the main drivers for Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 leverages on digital twins and extends its reach to customers and users connecting them, via Internet of Things (IoT), to the value chain. This connection is strengthened and eased by interconnecting the digital twins deriving from the industrial processes with the personal digital twins of the users. Such interconnection would help the monitoring and control of the epidemic.
Roberto Saracco is a senior member of the IEEE and senior lecturer in technology foresight at the University of Trento.