Dr Kevin Macnish, Digital Ethics Consulting Manager at Sopra Steria
Digital twins can and are creating value across purposes, contexts, and industries, from buildings management, to transport, to supermarkets, to banking. In 2018 the UK government set up the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) at the University of Cambridge as a focal point to develop a National Digital Twin. One early achievement of the CDBB was developing the Gemini Principles, outlining the underpinning principles behind a National Digital Twin.
Instead of a single National Digital Twin with unmatched access to data, the Gemini Principles (and the National Digital Twin programme set up by the CDBB) set out a vision for a digital twin ‘federation’. This would see lots of different, but compatible, digital twins from an array of purposes, contexts, and industries across the country being capable of ‘talking to each other’ and sharing data. The digital environment created by this data sharing would provide greater insight into the UK’s infrastructure, networks, and supply chains, amongst other areas.
The ethical challenges
While the potential benefits of this compatible digital twin ecosystem are numerous, implementing these solutions will require planning and thoughtful consideration of ethics if all these benefits are to be realised. If a National Digital Twin is to accepted by the public, digital twins must be trustworthy, both in terms of doing what they are supposed to do (competence trust), and in terms of treating people fairly and equally (ethical trust). This, in turn, requires that digital twins are ethical in their design and implementation. Achieving an ethical National Digital Twin federation, though, requires recognising several concerns.
Creating a corresponding and connected National Digital Twin federation has got to be a collaborative effort between government, industry, citizens and academia. Engaging a range of societal groups from different backgrounds and demographics in discussions about the future is fundamental if we are to avoid ethical blind spots, otherwise we may find digital twins perpetuating the impact of the biased systems we see today.
Industry leaders need to consider how they can engage stakeholders in the data sharing process, navigating the diverse range of concerns different societal groups may have. When decisions are often made by one sector of society, those decision-makers may miss severe impacts which affect other sectors. The best way to avoid this is through stakeholder or citizen engagement, bringing diverse members of society together from the outset to discuss the challenges and impacts of digital twins.
One of the challenges with citizen engagement, though, is that it is often limited to those who can afford the time. For many, responsibilities such as work or caring for family may take precedence over the discussion of the impact of a digital twin. To overcome this, private companies trying to engage stakeholders could look to reimburse people for their time, really investing in realising an ethical and trustworthy digital twin federation that reflects all demographics of society.
Alongside stakeholder engagement, the UK Government has a powerful opportunity to consider its central position as an advantage for engaging the whole of society, making the Gemini Principles a concrete standard rather than a set of aspirational guidelines. Beyond this, motivating the private sector to engage in this national process and recognising ethics should sit at the core will augment the value digital twins can have for the whole of society. This, though, requires leadership and vision from the centre.
Another vital aspect in ensuring ethical digital twins (and a national federation of digital twins) is avoiding data bias. While seamless data sharing has the potential to resolve numerous problems, we know data can misrepresent certain groups in society.
For example, AI and machine learning often make predictions regarding society based on historical data, potentially resulting in discrimination against groups who have been historically marginalised. This has been well-documented in workplaces which employ automated interview processes. To mitigate this, data sharing needs to be open and transparent to provide accountability. Avoiding data bias will be a combined effort, and a necessary step if public trust in a digital twin network is to be built.
Many may be concerned with the potential of a National Digital Twin to result in significant government surveillance. Having a National Digital Twin composed of individual bodies which are accountable to the public will help to combat fears of a ‘big brother’ style government with overall data control. As a society we need to respect the principles of ethical data sharing. We need to understand and oblige by the rule of appropriateness and know where to draw the line when it comes to data. For instance, will the public be comfortable with a digital twin in the medical field sharing sensitive data with private companies? These privacy concerns go beyond compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation/UK Data Protection Act, and are another important aspect in establishing trust and engagement with digital twins.
While the concept of a digital twin was first introduced in 2002, it is still a relatively new concept in the public eye. There remains a lack of awareness about digital twins and how they operate, particularly when it comes to data sharing, which can manifest as general distrust and suspicion.
Education is key if confusing misconceptions about digital twins are to be dispelled. The value a digital twin can bring, particularly when it comes to real-time insight into sustainability strategies, has to be demonstrated in a clear and comprehensive way. We are already seeing great strides made by bodies such as the Open Data Institute, which aims to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem in the UK and with educationand transparency digital twins can follow this path.
Once again, this is a prime opportunity for the UK Government to work alongside private companies and take a leading role in educating the public and creating a better environment for the nationwide deployment of federated ethical digital twins.
Doing the right thing
Ultimately,social value has to underpin the design and build of collaborative and communicative digital twins which can operate in a federated system. It is easy to talk about technological strategies and the data sharing required to implement them in abstract terms, but we often risk losing the very real human element which sits behind them.
Connecting with the public is key – technology is about people, and always has an impact on society. The Government, industry, private companies, and academics need to be asking one key question – how can a digital twin help society?
The road to compatible digital twin technology across the UK will be a gradual process which will involve learning as we go. However, through taking a consistently ethical approach, and bringing the public along on the journey, the UK can establish a robust and trusted National Digital Twin programme, the benefits of which will reach all in society.