Opinion

Using Israel's Technological Prowess to Make the World a Worse Place

As Merkel’s visit to Israel shows, Israel's innovative abilities are turning it into a global power – that can afford to ignore the Palestinians

Israeli technology: Virtual simulation of tunnel attack by Hamas fighters on a digital screen used during a VR battlefield technology exercise by Israeli special combat soldiers, April 26, 2017.
Rina Castelnuovo/Bloomberg

Germany has always had a “special relationship” with Israel, in effect a long, long note of apology for the Holocaust.  That’s very much to Germany’s credit. Few countries would take on a historical burden like that and truly act over a period of decades.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an explanatory video before flying off to Israel this week, naturally made reference to the relationship, but tellingly she devoted much more time to discussing other interests.

One is to step up Israeli-German stepped-up cooperation in research and development. The German leader arrived with a large delegation of businesspeople to explore deals in information technology and cybersecurity. “And, of course, we will also talks about the complicated political situation,” Merkel added.

The media of course, are far more interested in the political situation, by which they mean the Palestinians and Iran.

However, this media focus on the Palestinians is based mainly on force of habit. In the hard world of international relations in 2018, so long as the Palestinians aren’t causing trouble, the only way they can get the world to pay attention is to play the moral card, and that isn’t going to get them far.

In 2018, technology has taken over our lives. We use it to manage our social lives. It is the conduit for consuming information. We use technology  to shop, and soon it will be doing our driving for us and (if artificial intelligence lives up to its promise) much of our thinking, too. Tech companies dominate business and the economy, and now they are coming to the fore in diplomacy and international relations.

A half century ago, no country could claim to be a leading economic power if it wasn’t industrialized. Now the rule is that no country can become a leading power unless its economy not only uses high-tech products and services, but knows how to develop them. Innovative prowess is essential: it can’t be outsourced.

China is case study No. 1, of a country that knows the new rules and is working feverishly to ensure its leadership and even surpass America in key areas like artificial intelligence.  

America is case study No. 2: Donald Trump isn’t just worried about America’s trade deficit with China but about Beijing’s technology ambitions.

Where Germany lags 

Merkel also frets about Germany’s place in an emerging global power structure where technology is so critical.

In 20th-century terms, Germany is at the top of the economic heap – one of the world’s leading industrial powers and home to some of the world’s best-known companies.

But in 21st-century terms, Germany’s and Europe’s situation isn’t nearly so enviable.  Back from a trip to China earlier this year, where she observed China’s high-tech drive first hand, Merkel is now trying to develop a strategy to put Germany in the forefront of AI, the technology that is widely expected to pace all other tech developments in the foreseeable future. Germans do high-quality research, but they have trouble turning it into commercial products.

In that context, if we were to draw a map of how the world looks in terms of AI prowess, Germany looks like a second-string player.

A report by the German consulting firm Roland Berger found that the United States has the greatest number of AI startups: 1,393, or 40% of the world’s total.  China was next with 383, or 11%.

All of Europe has less AI startups than America, at 769. Also, as the report noted, “No individual European Union state achieves critical mass.”  Germany was home to just 106 AI startups.

And what about Israel? Unfurl your blue-and-white flags, because we had 362, almost as many as China and the third-largest assemblage the world.

Germany has now gotten on the same line as China, India and Japan, among others, seeking to become best, best tech friends with Israel. We’re a country that has more innovation resources than it can even begin to exploit on its own. And it’s not just AI, it’s also cybersecurity, autotech and even retail-tech.

Technology has put Israel into a place in the world pecking order unimaginable a decade or two ago.

Nakba II

For the Palestinians, these developments are tantamount to Nakba II (or maybe III, if you count Trump’s election), a setback of historical proportions in their quest for a state.

There was a time when Israel was such a small player in the global economy that it could be pushed around: boycotted by the Arab world and much of world businesses. Israel was shunned diplomatically and the object of lecturing by Europe.

No more. Merkel may talk about the “political situation” and Europe may occasional administer a symbolic wrist slap, but Israel has become too important for anyone to upset critical technology relations.

Israel may squander its assets by under-investing in its tech sector through poor schools and niggardly university budgets. Right now, however, I’d be more concerned about Netanyahu is exploiting Israel’s strong hand.

The prime minister is very cognizant of the value of Israeli technology to the world, but he is beholden to the interests of settlers and the Kulturkampf being orchestrated by the right. Alas, rather than using Israel’s growing power to defend globalism and the liberal order, he’s using it to ignore the Palestinians and allow the assault on Israeli democracy to go on, unimpeded by foreign criticism.