A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Digital twins, virtual brains and the dangers of language

A new computer simulation technology has begun to be introduced, for example, in the manufacturing industry. The computer simulation is called a digital twin, which challenges me to bring to life for the reader what something that sounds so imaginative can be in reality.

The most realistic explanation I can find actually comes from Harry Potter’s world. Do you remember the map of Hogwarts, which not only shows all the rooms and corridors, but also the steps in real time of those who sneak around the school? A similar map can be easily created in a computer environment by connecting the map in the computer to sensors in the floor of the building that the map depicts. Immediately you have an interactive digital map of the building that is automatically updated and shows people’s movements in it. Imagine further that the computer simulation can make calculations that predict crowds that exceed the authorities’ recommendations, and that it automatically sends out warning messages via a speaker system. As far as I understand, such an interactive digital map can be called a digital twin for an intelligent house.

Of course, this is a revolutionary technology. The architect’s drawing in a computer program gets extended life in both the production and maintenance of the building. The digital simulation is connected to sensors that update the simulation with current data on relevant factors in the construction process and thereafter in the finished building. The building gets a digital twin that during the entire life cycle of the building automatically contacts maintenance technicians when the sensors show that the washing machines are starting to wear out or that the air is not circulating properly.

The scope of use for digital twins is huge. The point of them, as I understand it, is not that they are “exact virtual copies of reality,” whatever that might mean. The point is that the computer simulation is linked to the simulated object in a practically relevant way. Sensors automatically update the simulation with relevant data, while the simulation automatically updates the simulated object in relevant ways. At the same time, users, manufacturers, maintenance technicians and other actors are updated, who easily can monitor the object’s current status, opportunities and risks, wherever they are in the world.

The European flagship project Human Brain Project plans to develop digital twins of human brains by building virtual brains in a computer environment. In a new article, the philosophers Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles, who are both working in the project, examine the enormous challenges involved in developing digital twins of living human brains. Is it even conceivable?

The authors compare types of objects that can have digital twins. It can be artefacts such as buildings and cars, or natural inanimate phenomena such as the bedrock at a mine. But it could also be living things such as the heart or the brain. The comparisons in the article show that the brain stands out in several ways, all of which make it unclear whether it is reasonable to talk about digital twins of human brains. Would it be more appropriate to talk about digital cousins?

The brain is astronomically complex and despite new knowledge about it, it is highly opaque to our search for knowledge. How can we talk about a digital twin of something that is as complex as a galaxy and as unknown as a black hole? In addition, the brain is fundamentally dynamically interactive. It is connected not only with the body but also with culture, society and the world around it, with which it develops in uninterrupted interaction. The brain almost merges with its environment. Does that imply that a digital twin would have to be a twin of the brain-body-culture-society-world, that is, a digital twin of everything?

No, of course not. The aim of the project is to find specific medical applications of the new computer simulation technology. By developing digital twins of certain aspects of certain parts of patients’ brains, it is hoped that one can improve and individualize, for example, surgical procedures for diseases such as epilepsy. Just as the map from Harry Potter’s world shows people’s steps in real time, the digital twin of the brain could follow the spread of certain nerve impulses in certain parts of the patient’s brain. This can open up new opportunities to monitor, diagnose, predict and treat diseases such as epilepsy.

Should we avoid the term digital twin when talking about the brain? Yes, it would probably be wiser to talk about digital siblings or digital cousins, argue Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles. Although experts in the field understand its technical use, the term “digital twin” is linguistically risky when we talk about human brains. It easily leads the mind astray. We imagine that the digital twin must be an exact copy of a human’s whole brain. This risks creating unrealistic expectations and unfounded fears about the development. History shows that language also contains other dangers. Words come with normative expectations that can have ethical and social consequences that may not have been intended. Talking about a digital twin of a mining drill is probably no major linguistic danger. But when it comes to the brains of individual people, the talk of digital twins can become a new linguistic arena where we reinforce prejudices and spread fears.

After reading some popular scientific explanations of digital twins, I would like to add that caution may be needed also in connection with industrial applications. After all, the digital twin of a mining drill is not an “exact virtual copy of the real drill” in some absolute sense, right down to the movements of individual atoms. The digital twin is a copy in the practical sense that the application makes relevant. Sometimes it is enough to copy where people put their feet down, as in Harry Potter’s world, whose magic unexpectedly helps us understand the concept of a digital twin more realistically than many verbal explanations do. Explaining words with the help of other words is not always clarifying, if all the words steer thought in the same direction. The words “copy” and “replica” lead our thinking just as right and just as wrong as the word “twin” does.

If you want to better understand the challenges of creating digital twins of human brains and the importance of conceptual clarity concerning the development, read the philosophically elucidatory article: Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Evers, Kathinka & Salles, Arleen. (2021). Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics. SCIO: Revista de Filosofía. 27-53. 10.46583 / scio_2021.21.846

This post in Swedish

Minding our language

4 Comments

  1. Dr.P.Thirumalaikolundusubramanian

    Good and informative.
    Being a senior citizen with least knowledge in computer sciences, is essential that AI and machine learning have to be incorporated in health science education and the importance has to be stressed so as to make it useful and beneficial towards diagnosis, treatment, prevention, prediction and mitigation.
    Physician/ India/

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you found the post informative!

  2. Dahlia

    I love your Harry Potter analogy! I actually knew about digital twins for a long time. But I always thought of it only as a way to optimize businesses, check it out here https://www.visartech.com/blog/digital-twin-solution-development-guide/ I’d love to learn more about the project described. What are the main objectives studied this way?

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.