Several members of the new European Commission have stressed the need to focus research spending on the 'grand challenges' society faces. What are the main challenges you see where innovation can help?
I'm a strong believer in the role of research in tackling environmental problems, energy, health care and education. The two most primal challenges I think of are health and education.
The world population is projected to hit nine billion by 2050 so you have to ask how we can help them to help themselves become a productive part of society.
In health, it's clear to me that there's no way to translate the rich-world model to the rest of the world.
If you say roughly one billion people in the US, Europe and other developed countries get high-quality healthcare, that still leaves an increasing majority of the population for whom quality healthcare is not available. Of course, even in parts of the US and Europe there are problems with accessing top-quality health services.
Is this because of rising health costs?
Yes. Even if all you sought to do was to take the current model of health we enjoy in the Europe and the US and recreate it for billions of people across the globe, it [the cost of health service delivery] would have to be cheaper. The real key is to take a technological approach and focus on prevention rather than remediation. We have to shift the focus towards wellness.
Do you see technology as part of the solution rather than part of the problem in terms of its affect on health costs?
Information technology is clearly one of the main elements in making it possible to address the public at scale – just look at the mobile communications sector. In health care, technology can facilitate self-help as a component of ultimately lower-cost ways of delivering remediation.
Can you give an example of how IT can help reach the vast numbers of people who have very low standards of healthcare?
One of the areas we are looking at is in robotics. We're developing a robotic triage doctor, capable of learning and reasoning, which projects an avatar of itself onto a screen. It listens to patients and can make a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment.
It can already be effective in dealing with 16 of the basic world childhood diseases – but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Is this a solution to the medical manpower problem in developing countries?
It's a question of getting enough trained manpower into certain areas. This robotic doctor gives us the ability to take some subset of medical practice and bring it to villages where that expertise is scarce. The next question is how do you keep updating the knowledge, but technology makes that a lot easier too.
Many of the aspects of health care that used to be high cost will be resolved by a person with limited medical training [who has access to this technology]. We can bring coaching for wellness to areas where the system is not well developed. There has been a huge amount of progress in all these core technologies.
Medical inflation is rising in developed countries. How do you encourage investment in innovation while trying to control spending?
It's not an easily answered question. Every region has its own challenges in this area. Health is the single largest expenditure for governments and the amount that's being spent is going up, but they are often not satisfied with the outcomes.
In the future, we have to be able to do a better job for more people for less money. And technology is the answer.
Do you see the current model of adding new innovations in health care as sustainable?
If you look at incremental progress in other areas like medical devices, the basic model has been one of steady progression in making, for example, more sophisticated ultrasound machines. The question that arises sooner or later is how elastic is the market? Will governments and others keep investing in the latest technology?
If you rethink innovation in terms of how to get technology to large numbers of people, you can reach a large proportion of the population and make a real difference. For example, the value of having mass availability of simple ultrasound capability could give a lot of valuable information.
We've been working with universities to find a way of taking a smart phone and plugging in a USB to make a basic ultrasound. This means millions of people who would otherwise have no access to hospital specialists and technology can have a basic ultrasound. This tells you things like whether a baby is in the right position and could help cut down on things like infant or maternal mortality.