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)
When I was younger, I often had dreams when I was asleep in which I raised my arms and flew effortlessly across the landscape. I had the opportunity to have a similar experience while awake when I was in Taiwan earlier this year. I am fairly frequent visitor to Taiwan [see ‘‘Crash’ in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on November 19th, 2014 and ‘Citizens of the world‘ on November 27th, 2019]. I often go with colleagues from the UK who have not been before and almost without fail we visit the amazing National Palace Museum. On my last visit in January [see: ‘Ancient standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] there was an exciting blend of art and technology in an exhibit that allowed the visitor to fly through the landscape of a painting. I stood in front of a projection of the picture on a large screen and lifted my arms for a moment to allow the computer system to register my position before starting to fly into the picture, tilting left or right to turn, and lowering and raising my arms to slow down or speed up. Although there was no mask or headphones to wear, the experience was absorbing and realistic. You can watch me flying with my ‘jetpack’ in this video.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our work on a proof-of-concept for a digital twin of a fission nuclear reactor and its extension to fusion energy [‘Digitally-enabled regulatory environment for fusion power plants‘ on March 20th, 2019]. In parallel with this work and together with a colleague in the Dalton Nuclear Institute, I am supervising a PhD student who is studying the potential role of virtual reality and social network analysis in delivering nuclear infrastructure projects. In a new PhD project, we are aiming to extend this research to consider the potential provided by an integrated nuclear digital environment  in planning the disposal of nuclear waste. We plan to look at how provision of clear, evidence-based information and in the broader adoption of digital twins to enhance public confidence through better engagement and understanding. This is timely because the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) have launched their new consent-based process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). The adoption of a digital environment to facilitate a consent-based process represents a new and unprecedented approach to the GDF or any other nuclear project in the UK. So this will be an challenging and exciting research project requiring an innovative and multi-disciplinary approach involving both engineering and social sciences.
The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research. For more information following this link.
 Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.
Image: Artist’s impression of geological disposal facility from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/geological-disposal-understanding-our-work
For many people Durham Cathedral will be familiar as a location in the Harry Potter movies. However, for me it triggers memories of walking around the cloisters discussing Erwin Schrodinger’s arithmetical paradox: there seems to be a great number of conscious egos creating their own worlds but only one world. Each of us appears to construct our own domain of private consciousness and Schrodinger identifies the region where they all overlap as the ‘real world around us’. However, he raises questions such as, is my world really the same as yours? Schrodinger proposes two solutions to the paradox: either there are a multitude of worlds with no communication between them or a unification of minds or consciousness.
Schrodinger found ‘it utterly impossible to form an idea about’ how his ‘own conscious mind should have originated by the integration of the consciousness of the cells (or some of them)’ that formed his body. Recently this has been addressed by Susan Greenfield, who has proposed that short-lived coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness. These ‘neuronal assemblies’, which last for fractions of a second, link local events in individual cells with large scale events across the brain and many of ‘these assemblies flickering on and off somehow come together to provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness’. In other words, our consciousness arises as an emergent behaviour of the myriad of interacting networks in our brain. It seems no less fanciful that our individual minds networked together to generate a further level of emergent behaviour equivalent to the unified mind that Schrodinger conceived though, like Schrodinger, I find it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen.
Perhaps, at some level we are creating a unified mind via the digital hive mind being formed by the digital devices to which we delegate some of the more mundane aspects of modern life [see my post entitled ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on 18th March, 2015]. However, Greenfield worries about a very sinister potential impact of our digital devices, which is associated with the stimulation they provide to millions of the younger generation. She thinks it could lead to small-scale neuronal assemblies becoming ‘the default setting in the consciousness of the digital native, to an extent it has never been in previous generations’. In other words we might be losing the ability to create the emergent behaviour required for consciousness and shifting it to our digital devices.
Perhaps we are closer than we think to the vision in Maria Lassnig’s painting of the lady with her half of her brain outside her skull? [see my post entitled ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 6th, 2016.
Erwin Schrodinger, ‘Mind and Matter – the Tarner Lectures’ in What is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Clive Cookson, Know your own mind, FT Weekend, 15/16 October 2016, reviewing Greenfield’s book.