Real Illusion: Virtual Twins and Control

A student recently pointed me to a, perhaps unintentionally, provocative article from The Economist. The notion of ‘virtual twins’ used by GE reminded me of the kind of biological ideology identified by Richard Lewontin in Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. My student sent me an excerpt from the article for he thought the topic would interest me. He was right.

The excerpt intrigued me enough to seek out its parent paper. I appreciate The Economist for its forthright purpose: advice in making/managing money and assessment, from an economic standpoint (at times thinly veiled as politics, social science, etc.), of that same advice.

With that in mind, I see how the ‘virtual twin’ model can be pitched as a way to improve products (i.e., sell more of them). Though a discussion of ‘who made who’ can be reserved for another time, it is instructive to note how business drives social concerns, in this case health care, and political agendas, in this same case a kind of authoritarianism.

Were every person to have her own ‘virtual twin,’ the decisions we make (eat that carrot now, later, or not; visit/move to ____ city/country; run versus hike versus bike versus watch t.v.) could, conceivably, be ‘tested’ before we make them. The logic of biological ideology tells us that the genome determines much about the life of an organism. Thus, we could imagine a future time where many (‘all’ stretches the bounds of even this hypothetical) decisions are run through simulations that each person consults. Further, based on the kinds of decisions the person makes, she could be held accountable for her actions if the simulation predicted an outcome that adversely affects her health (read: if she does something that will cost money for health practitioners to diagnose, cure, treat, etc.).

Of course, most biologists are not themselves so overtly deterministic or sanguine about the information to be gained from gene sequencing, as Dr. Meyer’s lecture regarding gene editing techniques made clear. Prediction, lacking all necessary information on permutations and the ‘rules’ that govern interactions, is a fancy term for educated guessing. My above scenario is, clearly, a guess. What such guesses reveal, however, are the things we want.

We want an understanding of which investment pays the most dividends (financial, salutary, etc.). We read The Economist and get our genomes sequenced, then, for similar reasons. We take the advice offered as it fits our own perspectives, ignoring what we will because, sometimes, we do not like the predicted outcome or it goes against other interests that we have. To say that a virtual windmill and an actual windmill are similar is a metaphor, just as the claim that the human body is like a machine is a metaphor.

Virtual twins, like the proverbial broken clock (bad metaphor), prove correct some of the time. We ignore the discrepancies, however, between the model and reality at our own peril. Moreover, because large companies, like health practitioners, are considered trusted sources of information in their relevant domains of expertise, their advice has the potential to impact many people who have no idea about the inner working of the decision processes of the individuals involved. People desire explanation of things beyond their control (lightning, disease, sporting contests), and our models, perhaps, give us the illusion of control.

Virtual twins, to conclude this long-winded and digressive reply, provide the illusion of control. What, then, are the financial, social, ethical, and political costs of such models on lay persons, governments, health insurers, and businesses? I’m guessing there is a model for that question.