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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The big decisions in our lives can paralyse us.

Faced with multiple pathways we often play out our different futures in our minds, before finally choosing the best (or least bad) version. Some of us make lists or flip a coin, others seek guidance from experienced mentors, spiritual leaders or the stars.

But what if... we no longer had to ask ‘What if…?’

Say hello to your digital twin: a virtual version of you built from your digital footprint. This virtual ‘you’ can live out possible futures for you, so you don’t have to make any changes in real life until you’re sure which path to take.

Your digital doppelganger will give you the chance to test the impact of major or minor life decisions – whether it’s about your next career step, or how your diet will affect your health in six months time – and anticipate problems before making any changes In Real Life.

In 2020, we predict that human digital twins will enter the consumer market. Soon, we will be able to test, model and predict the impact of various choices on our future using our very own digital replicas to inform decisions we make in the real world.

A person looks back at an image of themselves holding a piece of broccoli

The FaceApp, but for your entire life

Were you one of the millions of people who used the FaceApp to find out what you’ll look like as you age? Or did you try one of the similar apps that show you what sun damage could do to your face or what your child might look like?

People are starting to buy into predictions about themselves in a big way – no longer content with living and learning, we want to know what is in store for us based on increasingly accurate information.

The technology already exists in industrial engineering, where systems are monitored in real time to anticipate failures of a system before they occur. Elsewhere, digital twins are helping city planners to make smarter decisions about transport networks and energy management in cities from Singapore to Exeter. In healthcare, we’re seeing precisely modelled digital replicas of organs helping surgeons to explore interventions. People are already using apps that issue warnings in anticipation of major health complications, through real-time monitoring of heart beats and blood pressure.

How your digital footprint makes a digital you

Digital twins will take us to the next frontier of predictions, allowing us to know the future before it happens. But how do they work?

You might just be picturing a hyper-real avatar, who looks and talks like you, like those already being trialled in gaming, social media and porn industries. But digital twins go many steps beyond mimicking appearances – they are detailed data representing real-world objects, processes and systems. Your personal digital twin will be a precise virtual simulation of you, integrated with notifications on your phone, and activated through Alexa or even more immersive technology.

These digital replicas will be made possible by the data we constantly generate as we go about our real lives. Our online lives are building up more and more detailed digital footprints in all areas of life – from tracking our sleep patterns and eating habits to who we hang out with and how we spend our money.

When coupled with increasingly accurate predictive algorithms, which identify patterns and trends in these data to accurately model future outcomes, digital twins become powerful tools for exploring the future.

How will this affect people’s lives?

A character in thought

Your digital twin will function as your early warning system, signalling potential vulnerabilities when you still have a chance to make a change, and showing you the best version of yourself given the choices you currently face.

Early adopters will use their digital twins to visualise what decisions could lead to each digital future self: ‘What if I learn how to code?’, or ‘Will I be healthier if I adopt a vegan diet?’, ‘Will my mental health improve if I start walking to work three times per week?’ Or, perhaps an even more telling question: ‘What will happen if I change nothing at all?’

Based on what it knows about you from your personal data, the system will generate estimates about each of these scenarios. The more personal data that is fed into the system over time, the more accurate the simulated self will become.

Individuals might even start merging their digital twins with others to create digital families and collectives, which simulate the impact of decisions on larger groups of people. These could be used to help governments and communities develop more informed social policy and neighbourhood decisions.

Will it all be positive? Privacy advocates may warn about the threat of insurance companies or rogue governments using our digital twins against us. But as digital twins enter the mainstream, we’ll need to ask deeper questions about free will and agency.

Some people may find digital twins give them more confidence in making decisions, but some may get locked in to poor outcomes by poor predictions. Others may stop making decisions altogether, blindly following their twin’s recommendations or will be consumed by endlessly trying to generate the best version of themselves, allowing their digital twin to live more than its real-world counterpart.

Aleks Berditchevskaia is Senior Researcher in Nesta's Centre for Collective Intelligence Design; Jack Orlik is Programme Manager for Open Jobs; Oliver Cansdell is a Researcher for Nesta Challenges.