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Pandemic Spurs a Burst of Technology Innovation

virus inside a lightbulb, illustration

Credit: Getty Images

While the coronavirus has upended work and play across the United States, it has been a boon for technology, according to University of Miami experts. Technology inventions and innovations are destined to transform business and other facets of life, from how people communicate, educate, recreate, and entertain, to how they seek medical care, design new homes, and perhaps even choose who to live with.

"Tech companies are enabling digital productivity," says Ernie Fernandez, vice president of information technology and the University's chief information officer. "And this is not just a temporary Covid-19 response — these companies will continue to provide value in a world where digital technology is going to persist."

Computer science professor Geoff Sutcliffe adds that the unfortunate pandemic has some silver linings.

"We are privileged to be living through an industrial revolution, with computing at the core of it," he says. "Suddenly, this is how we do life and it will change our economic lives completely."

Health Care

The health care sector is one area seeing technological change. Not only are several companies developing contact tracing applications for Covid-19, but the pandemic has increased the acceptance of telehealth visits. Not long ago, insurance companies refused to reimburse doctors for remote exams conducted over a computer screen, yet Covid-19 has given them no choice, says Sara Rushinek, professor of business technology and health informatics in the Miami Herbert Business School.

Beginning with its football team and other student-athletes, the University of Miami is using Tyto Care kits to diagnose or monitor patients who may have been exposed to Covid-19 or who are recovering from the disease. The handheld devices allow health care providers to remotely peer down a person's throat, inspect their ears, listen to their lungs, and heart, even measure the oxygen in their blood. Rushinek expects the number of such devices that relay patient data to physicians will flourish with time.

Nicholas Tsinoremas, who directs the University's Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC), and Yelena Yesha, distinguished visiting professor of computer science, who is serving as IDSC's chief innovation officer, see other opportunities for technology in health care. "We may still go to the hospital, but there will be a lot of digital therapeutic devices to manage the patient outside of the doctor's office," Tsinoremas says.

Scientists are also harnessing artificial intelligence to uncover patterns among those infected with Covid-19 and to determine why some people are asymptomatic, why others die, and how the virus interacts with other ailments to affect a person's immune response, Yesha said.

Kenneth Goodman, professor of medicine and director of the Miller School of Medicine's Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, says the pandemic is fostering an accelerated digitalization of patient health histories and stimulating the creation of tools to allow these records to be shared more easily for both public health and clinical care.

"Health system computers need to talk to each other better," says Goodman, who also co-directs the University's Ethics Programs and IDSC's Data Ethics and Society Center. "Systems must become more interoperable, so that patients who move or are transferred can share their records seamlessly and securely."

Education and Business

When offices and classrooms were shuttered earlier this year, workplaces and school districts were forced to adopt collaborative platforms like Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, or Microsoft Teams. Once used occasionally, such tools are now almost essential and are being updated constantly, experts say.

"We are learning that some of the things we were doing are not the best way to have an impact," Tsinoremas says. "Why get on an airplane, when you can just have a virtual meeting?"

Sutcliffe, who has been able to attend several digital conferences this summer and is planning one of his own in October, sees the change as an advantage for students and faculty alike.

"They can now attend high-end conferences with experts in their field at a very low cost or sometimes for free," he says.

The growing presence of 5G networking amid the pandemic also could spur an explosion of technological innovation, Tsinoremas says. With more advanced computing and quicker video streaming, co-workers may forgo Zoom and simply meet with 3D avatars of themselves.

"It sounds like science fiction, but with a crisis like Covid, this may come much sooner than we all think," Tsinoremas says. "We can have a virtual meeting, or you could have your own 3-D model there."

In science classes, virtual labs will likely be more interactive, with instructors sharing multiple screens with the students — one with directions and another demonstrating experiments, Tsinoremas says.

Many companies and research centers are also improving decision-support software to help workers make more accurate, efficient, and sometimes safer decisions, Goodman says. An example is shown among the features now offered in cars to alert drivers of potential safety hazards. But the software — driven increasingly by machine-learning algorithms — is already improving some physicians' diagnostic accuracy and might reduce error.

"The future will bring an expanded use of computer decision support, which raises difficult ethical issues about whether to — and who should — use those tools," Goodman says. "Indeed, such software is already transforming science, commerce, and transportation. For instance, autonomous cars are rolling decision-support systems."

Yesha envisions a day when blockchain technology, which enables the creation of secure and permanent records of transactions, will protect the United States' supply chains, many of which were paralyzed at the onset of the pandemic. For example, auto parts suppliers could share their inventories, so shortages are visible to all the participants. Proponents say this technology increases security and identifies problems quicker. But it also requires companies to share their data.

"If you suddenly have a pandemic or a natural disaster, certain products need to be optimized. And blockchain enables you to have centralized data that can be updated in real time," Yesha says.  

The University of Miami is exploring the use of blockchain technology to offer digital diplomas and certificates to students who take courses online, Fernandez says. That way, signatures and information are unique to each student and can never be forged.

Home Life

The expansion of remote working is also likely to change how new homes are designed. And pandemic-related separations may change how people monitor and keep tabs on the safety of elderly relatives. As Tsinoremas notes, a good Internet connection was all most people needed for out-of-office work before the pandemic. "But it's no longer just exchanging e-mails at home, it's now a workspace as well," he says. "So, we need to design a digital existence at home."

Nursing homes also may need to change because, as the pandemic shows, family visits can no longer be assured. Therefore, Tsinoremas says, homes of the future may include more space for extended family, as well as sensors, cameras, and detectors that enable individuals to monitor their loved ones, wherever they are.

"How will we make sure our elderly are taken care of?" he asks. "How can we prevent them from falling with technology? It may not be too far-fetched that we will have 'health detectors' at our homes or workplaces like we have fire and smoke detectors today."

Travel and Entertainment

While the pandemic already has prompted many companies to expand contactless payment options and the growth of applications like Venmo, Zelle, Apple Pay, and Google Wallet, Tsinoremas says it's time to expand contactless exchanges to passports and other forms of identification, such as driver's licenses, by converting them to digital formats.

In the entertainment realm, Fernandez says that companies are creatively helping fans engage in music and sports while social distancing. For example, the Frost School of Music is adopting new ways to produce music by fusing the sounds of different musicians playing from their homes. In addition, Microsoft partnered with the NBA to enable fans to cheer, boo, or clap while remotely watching live basketball games this summer.

And while cheering alone, seeing a doctor on a computer, or conducting meetings via avatar may not seem ideal, it is certain that the novel coronavirus is not finished changing how we live.

"It's not all good, because we do need social interaction," Tsinoremas says. "But for a lot of things, there is a digital way to do them more efficiently."


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