Interview with Michel Cosnard

Multi-disciplinary science working for the benefit of society

Michel Cosnard © INRIA / Photo C. Dupont  Michel Cosnard - © Inria / Photo C. Dupont

Michel Cosnard, Chairman and CEO since 2006, answers the questions most frequently asked by different social players on information and communication science and technologies (ICST).

What is Inria's contribution to the digital technologies that are now part of our everyday lives?

Michel Cosnard: Inria is involved in a number of ways in designing the technologies being marketed today. The development of smart phones, which can be used not only to make calls but also to access online services, is based on work on telecommunications, human-machine interfaces and software to which the Institute's researchers contribute.

Another example is social networks, which are very much in fashion at the moment and have led to numerous research projects on software security and reliability, confidentiality of exchanges and privacy. Our teams also work on these crucial questions which concern all internet exchanges. Furthermore, we are involved in consideration of the ethical issues that may be raised by rapid technological advances and their mass dissemination. We have recommended the creation of an ethic committee for our fields of enquiry so as to be able to take these issues into account at a very early stage of our research.

How does ICST research contribute to the resolution of major social issues?

Michel Cosnard: Inria is currently examining issues which are of crucial importance for future generations, such as sustainable development, medicine and personal assistance services. We have included these issues in our strategic plan, and have significantly increased our activity in this field over the last four years. For example, our researchers are modelling the growth of plants with a view to improving farming performance, and are also developing diagnostic assistance tools for medical professionals. They are designing energy-efficient technologies, inventing automatic and shared means of transport, and creating services for the elderly and disabled.

The fact that ICST are present in every sector of activity makes them a very promising field for the future. We will need talented and creative researchers, and I hope that this field, which goes to the very core of today's most pressing social and human problems, will continue to attract more and more personnel, particularly women, who are still under-represented in our disciplines. Our efforts to spread scientific awareness among young people and to promote computer science teaching in secondary schools should help.

Medicine is increasingly reliant on digital technologies: what role does the Institute intend to play in this field?

Michel Cosnard: Computational medicine is a research priority for the Institute. We are devoting ever greater efforts to the subject. Our researchers contribute to the detailed modelling and simulation of organs (liver, heart or brain) in order to enable the study of their operation. They also model diseases, particularly cancers, and develop imaging tools, as well as treatment and surgery aids, such as tools to assist with cataract operations. Inria is also involved in telemedicine systems aiming to keep patients at home, and in the development of new generations of devices such as pacemakers, work which has resulted in a number of patents being filed.

This research requires us to work in close collaboration with biomedical teams, which is why we are developing joint teams and platforms. All of these interactions will increase over time. We are already taking part in the new Alliance for Health and Life Sciences. We are involved in most of the multi-organisation thematic institutes and the talents of Inria's researchers have been praised by fellow contributors.

Can Inria's research promote economic growth?

Michel Cosnard: For several years, we have been developing our systems to increase the impact of our technologies on the economy. To do this, we have given priority to strategic partnerships with major groups. These partnerships are based upon a shared vision of current economic issues and allow us to mobilise our teams to address fundamental issues in order to overcome technological barriers. We have also developed tools to help us work better with the SMEs from our sector, such as the small  Inria Innovation Lab (ex I-Lab) shared laboratories. At the same time, we have increased our capacity to collaborate with these SMEs.

The creation of new research centres in Lille, Bordeaux and Saclay has allowed the institute to move into new regional economic networks and get involved in local dynamics in close collaboration with competitiveness clusters. The Inria-Industry Meetings, held in Lille in 2009 with the "Industries du Commerce" innovation cluster, are one successful example. Many similar initiatives are to be organised at all the centres. Finally, 2010 should see our Inria-Transfer subsidiary transformed in order to improve the market penetration of our start-ups by helping them to create products that can be marketed more widely.

How is the discipline evolving?

Michel Cosnard: One of the year's most symbolically significant advances was the adoption of computer science as a research subject by the Collège de France. This event marks the recognition of computer science as a discipline in its own right, as well as its increasingly significant contribution to other sciences. With it comes an ambition to promote the teaching of computer science, with the subject now being offered as part of the optional syllabus for science students in the final year of their secondary school studies. It is our duty to get involved in the training of the maths teachers who will be responsible for this teaching. Work has already begun with some success at the Inria Sophia Antipolis Research Centre. This recognition also consolidates the all-encompassing, interdisciplinary approach we have adopted in our strategic plan in response to the big issues of our time.

The cooperative aspect of our activity is being strengthened, though large-scale projects supported by the institute, but also in larger collaborative structures such as the new Alliance, particularly Allistene, the Alliance for computational science and technologies. Research work will take on more of a European dimension, with greater integration and coordination. We are clearly part of this movement, with our ERC grant-winners, our international teams and, above all, the success of the EIT ICT Labs project, the high point of a very busy year. This was a great project, entirely focussed on Europe and its social issues.

Keywords: Michel Cosnard Sciences numériques Computer science Société Économie Health Environment