John Fox

Professor at Oxford University and expert on AI.

I am an interdisciplinary scientist with strong theoretical and applied interests in computer science, artificial intelligence and medical informatics. After training in experimental psychology at Durham and Cambridge Universities and NATO post-doctoral fellowships in the USA and UK (MRC) I joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) in 1981 as a researcher in medical AI and Head of the then new computer service. In the latter role I introduced a number of technical innovations and my group provided the computing support which permitted M Waterfield’s team to make the key discovery of the homology between PDGF and a simian sarcoma virus proto-oncogene.

In 1987 I established an independent research laboratory in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Laboratories of ICRF. The group’s research programme was explicitly multidisciplinary and it subsequently made significant contributions in basic computer science, AI and medical informatics, and developed a number of successful technologies which have been commercialised. I and my colleagues have published widely in computer science, cognitive science and biomedical engineering, and I was founding editor of the Knowledge Engineering Review (Cambridge University Press). Recent publications include a research monograph Safe and Sound: Artificial Intelligence in Hazardous Applications (MIT Press, 2000) which deals with the use of AI in safety-critical fields such as medicine.

In 1996 we were awarded the 20th Anniversary Gold Medal of the European Federation of Medical Informatics for the development of PROforma, arguably the first formal computer language for modeling clinical guidelines and protocols, and associated software for delivering decision support and workflow management services at the point of care. In 1999 I led the spinout of InferMed Ltd from CRUK to commercialise clinical decision support and clinical trials management software (see www.infermed.com).

Over the last 10 years or so we and InferMed have developed a wide variety of PROforma applications in primary and specialist care. My group's clinical work has been primarily concerned with establishing a convincing body of evidence that the technology is effective, and we have now published 7 studies that demonstrate this (most are in oncology but primary care has also been an important focus). The company is focused on developing commercial applications so there is little published data. However, the Retrogram system for advising on anti-retroviral therapy for HIV+ patients and other applications was developed for a highly successful international trial sponsored by Hoffman la Roche (http://www.infermed.com/index.php/news/item/50) and 100 guideline based decision support applications have been developed with New Zealand’s Best Practice Advocacy Centre and are currently being rolled out to NZ’s 4000 GPs.

The lab’s last quinquennial review at CRUK was in 2004, where our work was assessed overall as “internationally leading” with the PROforma development programme as “outstanding”. This led to discussions with CRUK about setting up a new interdisciplinary collaboration (COSSAC) embedded in world class technical centres in Oxford and Edinburgh and offering stronger clinical links than were possible in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields institute. At the beginning of 2007 I moved to take up a chair of Engineering Science in Oxford University.

Interviewed by Moyez Jiwa