My research includes work on developing digital twins [see ‘Digital twins that thrive in the real world‘ on June 9th, 2021] of aircraft, power stations and other engineering systems. And I am aware of similar work in other disciplines [see ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020]; but I was surprised to learn about the demand for digital clothing. Three-dimensional virtual spaces or metaverses exist in computer games, chat rooms and more recently virtual spaces designed for socialising and shopping that are populated by avatars that need to wear something. So, some fashion brands are producing digital clothing and charging you for the privilege of attiring your avatar with their logo. In other words, you can buy clothes that don’t exist for people who are not real. However, DressX has gone a step further producing a ‘digital-only collection’ of clothing for your digital twin or, at the moment, two-dimensional images of real people. So, now you can buy clothes that don’t exist, superimpose them on pictures of real people, and upload the results to social media. Perhaps it’s not as crazy as it seems at first because it might alleviate the need for fast fashion to produce single-use real clothes at enormous cost to the environment. However, dressing up your digital twin does not seem to offer the same level of anticipation and excitement as getting dressed up yourself. (Except in a lockdown? Ed)
I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018. Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996. ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’ These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes. In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity. This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder. Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder. Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature. The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.
Paul Virilio, and Petit Philippe. Politics of the Very Worst, New York: Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89 (available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-very-worst).
Digital twins are becoming ubiquitous in many areas of engineering [see ‘Can you trust your digital twin?‘ on November 23rd, 2016]. Although at the same time, the terminology is becoming blurred as digital shadows and digital models are treated as if they are synonymous with digital twins. A digital model is a digitised replica of physical entity which lacks any automatic data exchange between the entity and its replica. A digital shadow is the digital representation of a physical object with a one-way flow of information from the object to its representation. But a digital twin is a functional representation with a live feedback loop to its counterpart in the real-world. The feedback loop is based on a continuous update to the digital twin about the condition and performance of the physical entity based on data from sensors and on analysis from the digital twin about the performance of the physical entity. This enables a digital twin to provide a service to many stakeholders. For example, the users of a digital twin of an aircraft engine could include the manufacturer, the operator, the maintenance providers and the insurers. These capabilities imply digital twins are themselves becoming products which exist in a digital context that might connect many digital products thus forming an integrated digital environment. I wrote about integrated digital environments when they were a concept and the primary challenges were technical in nature [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015]. Many of these technical challenges have been resolved and the next set of challenges are economic and commercial ones associated with launching digital twins into global markets that lack adequate understanding, legislation, security, regulation or governance for digital products. In collaboration with my colleagues at the Virtual Engineering Centre, we have recently published a white paper, entitled ‘Transforming digital twins into digital products that thrive in the real world‘ that reviews these issues and identifies the need to establish digital contexts that embrace the social, economic and technical requirements for the appropriate use of digital twins [see ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020].
Cars that run on air might seem like a fairy tale or an April Fools story; but it is possible to use air as a medium for storing energy by compressing it or liquifying it at -196°C. The MDI company in Luxembourg has been developing and building a compressed air engine which powers a small car, or Airpod 2.0 and a new industrial vehicle, the Air‘Volution. When the compressed air is allowed to expand, the energy stored in it is released and can be used to power the vehicle. The Airpod 2.0 weighs only 350 kg, has seats for two people, 400 litres of luggage space and an urban cycle range of 100 to 120 km at a top speed of 80 km/h. So, it is an urban runabout with zero emissions and no requirement for lithium, nickel or cobalt for batteries but a limited range. A couple of years ago I tasked an MSc student with a project to consider the practicalities of a car running on liquid air, based on the premise that it should be possible to store a higher density of energy in liquified air (about 290 kJ/litre) than in compressed air (about 100 kJ/litre). His concept design used a rolling piston engine to power a family car capable of carrying 5 passengers and 346 litres of luggage over a 160 km. So, his design carried a bigger payload for further than the Airpod 2.0; however, like the electric charging system described a few weeks ago [see ‘Innovative design too far ahead of the market’ on May 5th, 2021], the design never the left the drawing board.