This is Part 2.
In Part 1 – Competition, Experimentation, and Progress – I discuss why the positive benefits of technological and societal Progress alone are not enough to encourage people to pursue it, why Competition and Experimentation are both necessary to create Progress, and how to look for areas of potential Progress in the coming years.
In Part 2 – Metaverse, Digital Twins, and Experimentation – I discuss the the potentially transformative power of the metaverse and digital twins, and why societies and companies that successfully harness this technology could see rapid periods of Progress. The popular conception of the metaverse as nothing more than a digital dimension for escapism undersells the power of the metaverse to encourage real world technological and societal experimentation.
The root of all human Progress comes from Competition and Experimentation.
We live in seriously amazing times…we have more than we’ve ever had, and we’re on track to have even more than we can imagine yet! (The distribution of all these things, though – the fairness of it all – is a different story also worth discussing but is outside the scope of the current story here…). I always have to remind myself that when my 96-year-old grandfather was born, nothing I have or can experience today – cars, planes, computers, TVs, telephones, electric appliances – existed (on a large scale) when he was born.
All of this would not be possible without both Competition and Experimentation.
Without Competition – with nature or with other humans – there would be no desire for change or improvement. Competition forces us to be better. Competition forces us to improve.
But Competition alone is not enough. Competition forces us to be better, but Experimentation is needed in order to help us understand what is possible. Experimentation allows us to discover how we can improve. Experimentation allows us to break the chains and transcend what would otherwise be an endless zero-sum competitive game.
We obviously live in a competitive world and have no control over the competition we experience, but whether we, as a society, experiment or not is more of a choice and changes over time.
Some periods of human history coincided with elevated experimentation – with technologies, processes, and ideas – like during the Renaissance.
Other periods of human history coincided with low or suppressed experimentation like during the Medieval Dark Ages.
Throughout both of these periods, people competed, with nature and with themselves…competition was persistent, but only one of these periods saw elevated experimentation and rapid Progress and societal improvement.
Good things tend to happen when society mixes Competition with Experimentation.
Which brings me to the topic I’d like to discuss here today – How can we continue to encourage more Experimentation in our world today?
Unfortunately, Experimentation is declining in many areas of the world we live in.
Even just 50 years ago, it was not uncommon for kids to grow up experimenting with radios, motors, and other gadgets…
Source: Adventures of Two Young Hams
…such experimentation is much less common today.
People, both as individuals and as a society, were much more inclined to engage in informal experimentation compared to today.
This is a problem.
Because in order to transform and improve the world and create Progress, we must experiment.
The decline in experimentation is actually not a surprise if we closely examine how society has evolved.
In many ways, the cost of experimentation has risen dramatically.
400 years ago, Newton could discover the laws of gravity simply by letting an apple fall on his head. It takes a genius to infer the laws of gravity from such a simple observation, but it cost nothing to be able to observe such an experiment at all.
300 years ago, Mendel discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by running simple experiments with pea pollination and reproduction:
Source: Khan Academy
Likewise, it cost almost nothing to be able to run such an experiment at all.
As our understanding of the world becomes more and more sophisticated, experiments need to become more and more complex in order to push our understanding of what is possible forward. In our modern age, this means pushing the boundaries of rocketry, nuclear physics, or large-scale upgrading / reorganizing of societal infrastructure (like bridges, ports, zoning, etc).
Sadly, this also raises the cost necessary for experimentation.
Furthermore, even as the cost of experimentation rises, the cost of failure is also rising as well. This further exacerbates the problem.
For example, even just a hundred years ago, society accepted experimentation with things like airships as a mode of transportation even when the cost of failure is higher:
Source: Rare Historical Photos
Today, we cannot tolerate even a single airplane crash, yet a hundred years ago, society was more accepting of even riskier propositions.
Including hydrogen-filled airships that could explode in spectacular fashion:
Of course, some of this was likely just due to the fact that people didn’t know they were taking such enormous risks (hard to know what you don’t know), but directionally, society has likely reduced the amount of risks it’s willing to take and raised the cost of failure.
It seems many progress-minded people think this is irrational, but it’s not.
In fact, it’s very rational and very human for this to happen.
Society has gotten richer! When society is poor, taking risks – especially when lives are involved – is easier to do. But the richer society gets, the more you have to do to justify changing society at all.
As the old saying goes – Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. And rich societies are mostly not broken.
And this is before even taking into consideration the environmental costs and risks we are taking with any new development we want to undertake. Poor societies cannot afford to care about the environment. The cost of failure is low if you don’t have much to lose. But rich societies cannot afford not to care about the environment. The cost of failure is high because rich societies have accumulated so much already and have so much to lose.
The cost of experimentation is rising, and the cost of failure is rising as well. Both of these things are making it increasingly difficult to pursue experimentation in our world today.
Does this make sense relative to what we see in our daily lives?
I think so.
I think it speaks volumes that software is the key area where modern, developed societies continue to experiment in rapid (and accelerating) fashion.
Software experimentation is largely shielded from the rising costs of the physical world, and the cost of failure in software is still relatively low these days because software is mostly used for convenience and productivity, not for critical operations (yet). For many of the most important societal functions where the cost of failure is high, operations still remain stubbornly analog. (One interesting example is to consider the analog-ish nature of Boeing planes and the disaster that happened when they used software to solve a hardware problem with the 737 Max).
Cost of failure does not have to be confined only to the financial realm (such as having to compensate people harmed by experimentation). In most parts of society, there is also a real social cost to failure.
In this regard, I think our personal experiences also support the view that experimentation is highest where the social cost of failure is low. Such as in Silicon Valley where failure is not only not stigmatized but is also often celebrated as a sign of valuable entrepreneurial and business experience.
Software and Silicon Valley are paragons of Experimentation because these two areas have been able to avoid the rising cost of experimentation and rising cost of failure in the real world.
In order to enable more experimentation everywhere, every industry needs to be able to figure out how to tackle these twin problems, the rising cost of Experimentation and the rising cost of failure.
To that end, I am becoming increasingly optimistic about the potential of the metaverse and digital twin technologies. I increasingly believe the harnessing of the metaverse and digital twin capabilities will help accelerate society’s capacity for Experimentation.
I’m going to hazard a guess that when someone talks about the metaverse, you probably think about an avatar in a video game-like environment.
Maybe something like this:
Source: The Verge
Although these representations of some aspects of the metaverse get all the attention, there is so much more practical utility beyond that that gets far less attention.
The single application of the metaverse that I am most excited about is something called digital twins.
In practical terms, a digital twin is a digital representation of something in the real world.
It could be a building. It could be a piece of equipment like an airplane. It could be a physical environment like a factory or a city.
When we get to a world where we have sensors everywhere, we could one day live in a world where we can have digital twins of everything that matters in our real world. And these digital twins can be monitored and manipulated at will at far lower cost than trying to do so in the real world. And if you destroy something, the cost of failure is negligible since you’ve destroyed nothing more than digital 1s and 0s.
For example, BMW is using Nvidia’s Omniverse (a metaverse-like environment) in order to create digital twins of their factories for experimentation:
To design and reconfigure its factories, BMW’s global teams can collaborate in real-time using different software packages like Revit, Catia, or point clouds to design and plan the factory in 3D and all the changes are visible, in real-time, on Omniverse.
“The capability to operate in a perfect simulation revolutionalizes BMW’s planning processes,”Nedeljković said.
Some of that work has to be hands-on. BMW regularly reconfigures our factories to accommodate new vehicle launches. Now, thanks to Omniverse that doesn’t mean workers have to travel.
Nedeljković showed two BMW planning experts located in different parts of the world testing a new line design in Omniverse.Source: Nvidia
This is not just a model of a factory, it’s a simulation…a physically-realistic environment that allows them to see how their operations could change if they change certain things.
To make these changes in real life costs real money. But to change it in a digital twin costs nearly nothing.
Not only does it cost almost nothing to make a change to a digital twin, if you make a mistake (perhaps changing a production line a certain way), there is no cost to failure. You can simply undo your change at will.
Another example is how Ericsson is using Omniverse and digital twin technology in order to test and simulate 5G networks before going out to do it in real life:
5G enables a multitude of new use cases ranging from IoT and manufacturing to self-driving cars and telehealth. Networks serving these use cases operate in vastly different environments. New types of devices will enter the networks, and the number of devices will grow by orders of magnitude in the next few years. These factors make the design and development of 5G products and networks very complex.
Without a digital-twin approach, the interaction between radio transmitters, the environment, and humans and devices that are on the move had to be understood with less detail. And many features had to be field tested only after the networks were already built.
“Before Omniverse, coverage and capacity of networks was analyzed by simplifying many aspects of the complex interactions, such as the physical phenomena and mobility aspects,” said Germán Ceballos, a researcher at Ericsson. “Now we’ll be able to simulate network deployments and features in a highly detailed scale using Omniverse.”
Creating an end-to-end city-scale digital twin results in faster development cycles, better network optimization and ultimately better, swifter networks because it delivers fast insights into what products to install where, Ceballos says.Source: Nvidia
Increasingly, changes to our physical world can lead to very complex impact that is hard to predict. It is very hard to predict how something as complex as 5G networks would behave in real life.
But if you have a digital twin of a city or a world to work with you can experiment in digital space first. Not only does it cost far less to experiment in digital space, the costs of failure are also negligible if you make a mistake.
An example where digital twins can dramatically reduce the cost of making mistakes is for autonomous car testing:
In order to perfect autonomous driving technology, society will need to have a lot of autonomous cars driving a lot of autonomous miles. This is costly to do in real life. Not only does it cost a lot to build the cars (especially if you need to make adjustments along the way while the technology is not mature), the cost of failure could involve getting one or more people killed.
The most important situations to resolve before putting these on the roads in large scale are dangerous situations. You don’t want these cars to be commercialized until you know it can handle dangerous situations. But that also means that you need to test them and experiment with them in dangerous situations before the technology is mature. That, unfortunately, carries a high cost of failure.
But all of these costs can be mitigated if the experimentation is done in a digital twin of our cities and our world. If you kill a person in digital space, the cost is negligible!
It is very important to stress that digital twins is very different from 3D modeling technology that we’ve already had for many years. Models are like maps. They represent the world in some way, but it is not the world itself.
With the proliferation of sensors and camera / vision technology, we’re on the cusp of being able to digitize our world and things in a way that has never been possible before. Even then, digitizing objects alone is not enough! We also need enough computing power in order to accurately simulate the physics of objects in digital space to truly create a representative digital version of the world we live in.
For the first time in human history, we’re on the cusp of accomplishing exactly that.
Once we have that, we can do all the experimentation we want while avoiding the very costs associated with the real physical world we live in precisely because our world is valuable and becoming ever more valuable over time.
The philosophy and process of experimentation owes a lot to the field of science. Scientists are the ones that formulated the Scientific Method several hundred years ago. The benefits of the Scientific Method as a way of thinking and as a way of deducing and understanding how our world works cannot be understated.
What we know about our world and what is possible is the direct result of many experiments that have led to invaluable creation and invention.
For example, Alexander Fleming and his petri dish experiments that ultimately led to the discover of Penicillin, likely the most important medical discovery of the 20th Century:
Source: Scientific American
For example, Henry Cavendish and the torsion balance experiment that led to the discovery of the gravitation constant G that governs the force of gravity:
For example, Charles Darwin and his observations on Galapagos Islands that led to the understanding and formulation of evolution and natural selection:
But there is one discovery and experiment that stands above all: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
I’m willing to bet that out of all of the theories and experiments that have changed the course of human history, the single scientific theory that is most well known among the general populace is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Nothing even comes remotely close to Special and General Relativity.
In my opinion (and indeed, this is an opinion), there’s a very special reason why.
Every single experiment you can think of (or look up online) involved either an observation about some phenomena in our world or a controlled experiment of some sort that resulted in data that tells us something about how our world works.
That is to say – Every single experiment (and its related conclusion / scientific theory) was based on some observation of something on Earth. Every scientist is a giant of their time, but their discoveries were equal parts observation, perspiration, genius, and sometimes luck!
Mendel discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by breeding peas…he absolutely deserves the honor of having made such an important discovery, but, in my humble opinion, had others curiously bred peas as well, someone else might have independently discovered the same!
Science is about observation and logic. Many people could have made the same discoveries as many of the greatest scientists we honor had they seen the same data. There are many smart people in the world, but you need to be given the chance to observe the data in order to potentially derive the same discoveries.
This is why Einstein and his Theory of Relativity is different.
Einstein never came up with his Theory of Relativity based on data observed on Earth (though his theory is based on inconsistencies he observed with the existing theories based on data observed on Earth). Einstein couldn’t even begin to observe the world in a way that would suggest the Theory of Relativity is possible.
There was no data that he could have seen that would tell him that mass and energy are transmutable and interchangeable.
There was no data that he could have seen that would suggest moving faster and faster towards the speed of light would cause time to slow and slow until time would literally stop.
There was no data that he could have seen that would tell him that gravity could bend physical space and time! How does one even begin to understand that gravity can bend time?
This is why Einstein and his Theory of Relativity is different.
Einstein did not devise the Theory of Relativity based on direct observations of it in action on Earth.
Einstein devised the Theory of Relativity based on observations and experiments in his mind:
…a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen: If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.Source: Wikipedia
Einstein devised the Theory of Relativity based on his mental experiment of what the world would look like if he could ride a beam of light.
The development of his theory is incredible because the real-world evidence supporting his theory would not be observed until years later and at significant cost.
For example, a consequence of the Theory of Relativity and the ability for gravity to bend space-time tells us that we should be able to see light from behind a blackhole. Given the enormous gravity of a blackhole, there should be no way to see light through it since any light going through it should be absorbed. But if gravity can bend space, then light can be bent around a blackhole such that it looks like it is going through it.
Source: Live Science
To observe such phenomena in real life requires a lot of money and equipment. The cost of such an experiment in real life is very expensive.
Yet, Einstein figured this out all in his head.
Of course, this is only possible because Einstein understood the physical laws of nature better than anyone at the time. His understanding of physics allowed him to simulate experiments in his head, even one as preposterous as riding on a beam of light.
If you ask me, that sounds a lot like where we’re going with digital twins.
For the very first time, we’re on the cusp of being able to simulate the world we live in with accurate physics. For the first time, we can all be Einstein.
One of the greatest novels ever written is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book follows the curious and breathtakingly magical history of the town of Macondo and the Buendia family.
All of the characters are wonderfully curious and imperfect in their own ways and somehow fall to ruin of their own making.
Unbeknownst to them, the downfall and tragedy of each character was recorded and predicted in a magical but indecipherable manuscript gifted to them by the traveling gypsy, Melquiades. The magical manuscript was passed down through generations, but its contents were not understood until it was too late. Had it been deciphered, perhaps their fates could have been altered.
By the end of the novel, the town of Macondo is almost entirely forgotten, and the only person left is Aureliano (of the sixth generation), the last member of the Buendia family. It was then, when there was only Aureliano left in a completely forgotten Macondo isolated from the world of men, that Aureliano finally deciphered the manuscript and understood what it had all meant:
Aureliano could not move. Not because he was paralyzed by horror but because at that prodigious instant Melquiades’ final keys were revealed to him and he saw the epigraph of the parchments perfectly placed in the order of man’s time and space: The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.
Aureliano had never been more lucid in any act of his life…for he knew then that his fate was written in Melquiades’ parchments…It was the history of the family, written by Melquiades, down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time…impatient to know his own origin, Aureliano skipped ahead. Then the wind began, warm, incipient, full of voices from the past, the murmurs of ancient geraniums, sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenacious nostalgia. He did not notice it because at that moment he was discovering the first indications of his own being…and he found the instant of his own conception among the scorpions and the yellow butterflies in a sunset bathroom where a mechanic satisfied his lust on a woman who was giving herself out of rebellion. He was so absorbed that he did not feel the second surge of wind either as its cyclonic strength tore the doors and windows off their hinges…
…Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.Source: One Hundred Years of Solitude
In a way, Melquiades’ parchments were a digital twin of Aureliano’s world. Had the Buendia’s been able to decipher it, they could have foreseen the future and the evolution of their future and perhaps changed it. But Fate would not grant them that.
But lucky for us, we can and will be the masters of the digital twin of our world. Through that, we can simulate and foresee the evolution of our own world. And if we don’t like where it’s going, then we’ll just have to experiment and change it.