Digital twin adoption: success lies in understanding the ethics

If digital twins are to succeed, those that are affected by them must be able to trust that they will cause no harm. To achieve that, those who commission and build digital twins must understand the ethics. Here, Dr Kevin Macnish reflects on the Gemini Principles that underpin the National Digital Twin.

Digital twins are becoming increasingly common, finding applications in industries from manufacturing to healthcare to education. However, they are arguably most developed within the field of buildings management. Here, they have been employed with smart buildings for a range of uses, including producing intelligent recommendations, analysing root causes of problems and providing insight for predictive maintenance.

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, which form the underpinning principles behind the National Digital Twin programme. This programme seeks to create a federated system of digital twins that can communicate with one another without needing centralised oversight.

This is of obvious benefit to industry, which will gain from knowledge sharing while not being held back by excessive oversight. However, it will only happen if the Gemini Principles become a common feature of all digital twins.

A significant aspect of the Gemini Principles, and digital twins in general, is the ethical issues that they raise. These are key if digital twins are to be a sustainable solution. When solutions are unethical, when invariably discovered, a wholesale reform of the solution is needed.

“When unethical solutions are discovered, the industry as a whole suffers a reputational loss with the public and regulators.”

Furthermore, when unethical solutions are discovered, the industry as a whole suffers a reputational loss with the public and regulators. However, the most significant impact is that real people or the environment are negatively impacted, and that can take shape in a number of ways, including, but not limited to, discrimination, marginalisation or an impact to health.

Cheating on emissions tests is a good example here. The longer-term result is a negative impact on people, the environment and a subsequent loss of trust in industry and digital twins in general, impacting their ability to benefit society.

Some of the Gemini Principles have an undeniably ethical angle. The first, that digital twins “must be used to deliver genuine public good in perpetuity” is a clear example. However, ambiguity still exists within this principle of ‘public good’, as questions such as “who is defining public good?” can and should be asked.

Ethical considerations

Others, such as the ninth principle, that digital twins “must be able to adapt as technology and society evolve” are even less obvious. Nonetheless, all nine principles raise ethical considerations. Given that these are intended as guides for all digital twins in the UK, this means that they are a helpful starting point to understand the ethical issues arising from digital twins generally.

Some may object that both ethics and digital twins are heavily changed by the context in which they are found. It is true that there is a contextual element to all ethical issues: how they are approached will depend on the context in which they occur. This means that the ethics of a digital twin used in banking may differ from those of a digital twin used in transport.

“Most ethical issues require balancing trade-offs. If the answer were obvious, then we would probably not even recognise it as an ethical issue.”

Even so, there are also a lot of commonalities across industries. This is especially the case when people are directly impacted by the work of the digital twin, which will always be the case, as all technology impacts people.

There is not the space here to work through all the ethical issues raised by the Gemini Principles, still less of digital twins more generally. For this, I recommend reading the report referenced at the end of this article. We can take examples, though, such as the principle of value creation, which states that digital twins “must facilitate value creation and performance improvement”.

This can be read in two ways, depending on whether you take “value” to be prudential (e.g. efficiency) or ethical (e.g. fair). Either way, we need a clearer understanding of what we mean by value. Furthermore, as aforementioned, who gets to define value? Those building the digital twin or those most affected by it? This is especially true in smart buildings. Is value here achieved through making people most comfortable or through making the building carbon-neutral?

Prioritising values

Most ethical issues require balancing trade-offs. If the answer were obvious, then we would probably not even recognise it as an ethical issue. Few, if any, today think of mandated seat belts in cars as an ethical issue, yet they were once seen as such. As with the above case, we need to decide which values should be prioritised. Doing this effectively, though, requires a full understanding of the stakes, and this we may not have.

There are various reasons for this, but a common issue is that the decision-makers may not have lived the same experiences as those impacted by their decision. The ambient temperature of a building, for example, will likely be set differently if the decision-makers are all male versus whether they are all female, or of mixed gender. This understanding can therefore be helped by having diversity among decision-makers, and by engaging all stakeholders involved in a process (including those affected by the end result). This will not solve the problem, but it will make the issues on the table clearer to those tasked with solving it.

There are therefore numerous ethical issues which arise from the design and use of digital twins. While decision-makers are unaware of the potential issues, they will go unaddressed. This will impact the sustainability of digital twins, their longevity and ultimately trust and regulation in the industry.

Resolving those issues is not always straightforward, but a diverse group of decision-makers and ongoing stakeholder engagement can help ensure that those issues are recognised. This will allow for a fair weighing of competing values and reflect digital twins as being a part of, and bringing value to, society as a whole.

This article is drawn from research and a report written by Sopra Steria for, and published by, the National Digital Twin programme on the ethics of the Gemini Principles. The full report can be accessed for free here. Further work by Sopra Steria can be found here.

Dr Kevin Macnish is digital ethics consulting manager at Sopra Steria.

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