"We'll make Israel one of world's AI leaders"

Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel Photo: Eyal Izhar

Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, who persuaded the government to invest in cybersecurity in 2010, hopes to duplicate this success in artificial intelligence.

There is barely an inch of unused space on the walls of Prof. and Maj. Gen. (res.) Isaac Ben-Israel's small office. A series of statuettes peek out from under portraits in various styles of the legendary physicist. Any walls without pictures are covered by bookshelves bursting with books and doctoral and master's theses on defense subjects, together with books about Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled the East Asian island until 1990. During the interview, Ben-Israel went to one of the shelves, pulled one of the books out from it, leafed through its pages, and finally found what he was looking for: a quote by Kuan Yew citing the defense vision of David Ben Gurion. There was a good reason for this - the entire interview took place in an atmosphere of long-term planning and anticipating the future.

It appears that the not-so-subtle message is that the initiative now being promoted by Ben-Israel of making Israel a power in artificial intelligence (AI) should be put above routine political conflicts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already given approval for things to get started and the forming of a committee of 80 specialists to devise the goals and plan of action, and work is already in progress. As of now, the aim is to define the mission as being of supreme importance to defense and to reduce the maneuvering space of anyone liable to put a spoke between the wheels. Everything here is interdependent.

Ben-Israel's office is located in the cyber center at Tel Aviv University, which he heads - a reincarnation of the last political-technological revolution to his credit. At present, together with former National Cyber Bureau head Dr. Eviatar Matania, Ben-Israel is planning to duplicate their contribution to making Israel a global cyber power, this time in AI.

"We want to achieve the same thing on a national scale that we did eight years ago. We submitted the report to Netanyahu in May 2011, a year after we began. We managed to trigger a national project of industry combined with higher education, the educational system, the government, and the Ministry of Defense. Without this combination, nothing would have moved here. In order to succeed, we have to guarantee synergy between all of the agencies, so that each one will both contribute to the others and get something in return."

"Globes": If your plans are fully implemented, what is your AI vision for Israel?

Ben-Israel: "It starts with education. AI centers will be established in the universities and every student in every faculty will be given a basic course in machine learning in a form that will enable every researcher to conduct intelligent analysis of every set of data, even in literary and architectural questions, for example. This will happen not only in higher education - AI will be taught in high schools, maybe even as a required subject."

And in industry?

"If everything goes according to plan, I personally believe that Israel will be a global center for AI technologies that will make it one of the world's five leading countries. The government will develop new mechanisms for encouraging startups in the sector and money will pour into Israel from the world to fund research, and later development.

"We'll have an advantage in AI systems that will be resistant to cyber attacks by those seeking to exploit the new technologies for their benefit. For example, the autonomous vehicle technologies developed here may not be the only ones in the world, but they will be more resistant than the others to cyber break-ins, and that will have major consequences for the safety of the passengers in the vehicle. Medicine will also rise to a higher level as a result of using a 'computer doctor' to replace a large proportion of what human doctors currently do, including image analysis, diagnosis based on all of the patient's data, and providing a rapid diagnosis to patient at home."

Ben-Israel adds, "We should have chosen which areas we Israel to develop in. Since we can't focus on more than three or four areas, we chose areas that would be a model that would pull the rest of the economy after it: the financial system, i.e. fintech; health and medicine, in which most work by doctors will be replaced by intelligent machines; transportation - not just autonomous cars, but planning capability at the municipal level that will even render traffic lights superfluous; and industry - the entire field of robotics and Internet of Things."

A race against 20 other countries

According to Ben-Israel, the first stage of the national campaign is to build an ecosystem, as happened with the National Cyber Bureau founded on January 1, 2012. The agency responsible for Israel's cyber defense, the National Cyber Authority, was founded three years later. The National Cyber Directorate, which was established at the beginning of the current year, combined both of them into a single agency.

"We had two goals then: security and the economy. We didn't really invent the Israeli ecosystem; the entire high-tech ecosystem has been in existence for 30 years. We just took it and tilted it a little in the direct of cyber because we spotted it as a subject that could take hold on the general national level."

If the background story sounds familiar to you, it is because the efforts of people in higher education are now acting simultaneously to promote government support for another family of technologies - quantum computing research. Ben-Israel explains that these two initiatives are being promoted together: one of the conditions for progress in AI capabilities is an increase in computing power, and one of the ways of increasing computing power is with the help of capabilities obtained through quantum science. "There is therefore contact between them; one does not come instead of the other," Ben-Israel says.

When you started talking about cyber in 2010, the timing was right, just before the field made the big time. Today, however, the entire world is talking about AI. Are you sure that you have reached this field in time?

"Yes. It's true that the world was unaware of cyber in 2010, which isn't true about AI. What we call 'the world' is actually decision-makers and politicians, and in AI there are 20 other countries that have realized the trend. The question of awareness, however, is less important. Cyber already existed in 2010, but no one was talking about it except for defense agencies. In the rest of the world, the level was as high as in Israel, if not higher. We weren't even the ones who caused awareness of the subject; it was all sorts of cyber attacks. We said, "Now is the right time to do what only Israel can do: organize all of the relevant parties for synergy."

Ben-Israel is referring to the agreement reached not only in Israel, but among overseas investors, that Israel would be the place where things could be moved easily. Israel's limited geographic area, the fact that the high-tech industry was mainly concentrated in a few hubs located close to one another, the fact that "everyone knows everyone else," and the culture of no distance, the ability to improvise creative and diligent thinking all contributed to this. Separately, it is hard for each element of the ecosystem in Israel to compete with what is being done overseas; in every sphere, there are other centers in the world similar to us. "In the US, however, there is Silicon Valley in one corner and Boston in the other," Ben-Israel says. "There are 300 million people in the US. They can't all be combined into one ecosystem, even if they really want to be."

Rapid organization will compensate for weaknesses

Ben-Israel believes that good organization can compensate for Israel's poor starting position in AI: "In cyber, we already had an advantage in certain areas, but we didn't lead in most areas and there were also things missing that we had to complete. The same is true in AI: we're behind. There are things that we're strong in, especially anything relating to the connection between AI and cyber. There are also some simple machine learning applications, but this is a misleading façade. The situation is that there are many more uses for AI than are common in Israel, and there can be many more. The state has to create this infrastructure, because no one else will do it. Companies like Facebook, Intel, IBM, and Alibaba can invest resources on the level of a country in order to generate core AI technologies, but no one else can. We therefore have to first of all create the technological infrastructure.

"In addition to establishing this infrastructure, we have to think about how to organize everything: what kind of organization is needed - an administration a budget or regulators, what regulation is needed, and how the Ministry of Defense should be included. The number of committees will probably be 10-15, each with 5-10 members, all of them volunteers. We're collecting people willing to contribute their time."

While Ben-Israel is explaining the structure of the committee, he gets a call from the manager of a development center of a major multinational corporation offering to head one of the committees in the framework of the AI Committee of 80.

He is not alone. The members of the committee are supposed to include a long list of senior executives representing the relevant parts of the economy, including the head of the National Security Council, the Council for Higher Education in Israel - Planning and Budgeting Committee, and the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, an agency that Ben-Israel himself headed in 1998-2002. The committees are planned to also include experts from government and institutions of higher learning.

Ben-Israel does not allow the telephone call to interrupt the interview. He continues his explanation: "There will be an integration committee above them that will connect the conclusions of all the committees. Besides the members of the steering committee, the integration committee will also have representatives from the industry itself - representatives of the industries, such as Intel, which is moving its AI activity to Israel. Above all of them will be the steering committee, which will be led by two members appointed by the prime minister - Eviatar Matania and myself - and three other members for whom the criteria will be heading research and development concerns. The representatives will be Ministry of Economy and Industry chief scientist and Israel Innovation Authority chairperson Dr. Ami Applebaum; the head of the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, who will represent military R&D; the head of the Council for Higher Education in Israel - Planning and Budgeting Committee, who will represent academic research; and Israel National Council for Research and Development chairperson Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz."

Doesn't including a company like Intel in these committees create a conflict of interest?

"Maybe they won't be full members, because it is a state committee and there are laws about conflicts of interest. Keep in mind that these things are being settled on the fly. So some of them won't be regular members, but only in certain aspects that do not involve a potential conflict of interest. They will be invited only to certain discussions."

Detecting missiles and children falling into a pool

Ben-Israel does not become confused when we ask him why the public should pay for all this. "The entire world likes to say that Israel's excellence in cyber is due to Israel Intelligence Corps Unit 8200. To the same extent, there are now units in the army dealing with AI. The same technology that takes a lot of data in order to discover a terrorist can be used to detect diseases. Every civilian example has a military counterpart.

"Since the industrial revolution, history shows that the big money always comes from the government. This is exactly what's happening today in outer space: there were large amounts of money that no industrial concern was able to invest, but at a certain point, the price became low enough that industry was also able to use this technology. As soon as it's sold in mass and the price falls, it becomes a snowball - more people buy and there is more money for lowering prices.

"That's how the first airplane was built for the US army, the first computer, and even GPS began as a military system. The first mobile phone was also developed by Motorola for the US Army in the 1980s. Enormous amounts were invested at the beginning in all of these technologies, and not by the market. The market didn't think there was any need. The market wakes up only when the technology starts to penetrate, and that's fine.

"They asked the same questions about cyber. It was easy for the Ministry of Finance. They said, 'It's obvious that this helps security, but it's not obvious to us that it gives an economic advantage - so let's start with security.' This means that the budget will come from the defense budget, and if it succeeds, then the success will reach civilians, too. The problem is that in real life, it doesn't work like that, because something that goes for security remains classified, and will get outside only after 20 years."

Judging by your experience with the cyber committee, what will be the distance between the plans and what actually happens? Can we be optimistic?

"What's surprising is that the plan and the implementation in cyber were very close to one another. Not only was there a great resemblance between the plan and the performance, but the implementation was actually faster. I told the prime minister, in jest of course, that we didn't really need the government decision, because all of the agencies already realized what had to be done. Of 13 sections sent to the government for a decision, most were taken in the first discussion. Only the decision about the budget required further discussion."

What was decided in these discussions?

"We got everything in the end."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 12, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel Photo: Eyal Izhar
Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel Photo: Eyal Izhar
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