Research Science and Technology

Pandemic spurs a burst of technology innovation

University experts say the COVID-19 crisis is encouraging the next revolution in computing and discovery, with more to come.
Pandemic spurs a burst of technology innovation
Technology invention and innovation is flourishing during the coronavirus pandemic. Graphic: Kristian Rodriguez/University of Miami

Since the novel coronavirus put its grip on the United States, daily life has changed in countless ways.

Those who can, work from home. Those who rarely cooked now have little choice. And the days of enjoying sports events or concerts among a throng of people seem like distant memories.

But COVID-19 has been a boon for technology and, according to University of Miami experts, these innovations are destined to transform how we do business and almost every other facet of life—from how we communicate, educate, recreate, and entertain to how we seek medical care, design new homes, and perhaps even choose who we live with.

“Tech companies are enabling digital productivity,” said 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.”

Ernie Fernandez

Geoff Sutcliffe, a computer science professor, added that amid the unfortunate misery and death, the pandemic has some silver linings.

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

Health care

The health care sector is one area undergoing massive technological growth. Not only are several companies developing contact tracing applications for COVID-19, but the pandemic has dramatically 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, said 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 is the first in the nation to use 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, also see the opportunity for technology to improve 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 said.

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—such as liver disease—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, said 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,” said 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 shuttered almost overnight, 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 for everyday survival, and they are being updated constantly, experts said.

“We are learning that some of the things we were doing are not the best way to have an impact,” Tsinoremas said. “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 said.

The growing presence of 5G networking amid the pandemic also could spur an explosion of technological innovation, Tsinoremas said. 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 said. “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 pointed out.

Many companies and research centers are also improving decision-support software to help humans make more accurate, efficient, and sometimes safer decisions, Goodman said. 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 said. “Indeed, such software is already transforming science, commerce, and transportation. For instance, autonomous cars are rolling decision-support systems.”

Yesha envisions a day when block chain technology, which enables the creation of secure and permanent records of transactions, will protect the nation’s 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 block chain enables you to have centralized data that can be updated in real time,” Yesha said.  

In fact, Fernandez said, the University of Miami is exploring the use of block chain technology to offer students, who take courses online, digital diplomas and certificates. 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 we design new homes. And, now that many of us know the pain of being separated from elderly relatives, it may change how we keep tabs on their safety. As Tsinoremas noted, before the pandemic having a good internet connection was really all most of us needed for out-of-office work.  “But it’s no longer just exchanging e-mails at home, it’s now a workspace as well,” he said. “So, we need to design a digital existence at home.”

Nursing homes also may become less attractive because, as the pandemic showed, family visits can no longer be assured. Therefore, Tsinoremas said, homes of the future may include more space for extended family, as well as sensors, cameras, and detectors that enable us to monitor our loved ones, wherever they are.

“How will we make sure our elderly are taken care of?” he asked. “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 prompted growth in applications like Venmo, Zelle, Apple Pay, and Google Wallet, Tsinoremas said, 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 said, companies are creatively helping fans engage in music and sports, while social distancing. For example, he noted that the Frost School of Music is adopting new ways to produce music by fusing the sounds of different musicians playing from their home. 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 said. “But for a lot of things, there is a digital way to do them more efficiently.”