Israeli companies including Microsoft Israel, Western Digital, Rafael, Matrix BI and the startup ProteanTecs won a tender by the Israel Innovation Authority to launch a program to train their employees in artificial intelligence.
The authority will help the five companies to work as a team and will allocate 4.5 million shekels ($1.37 million) over the course of three years to fund two-thirds of the project. Some 200-250 workers will participate.
The project is aimed at increasing the number of employees with artificial intelligence skills in Israel, which are sorely lacking. However, critics question whether public money should be funding training for skilled workers at some of Israel’s largest and wealthiest high-tech companies.
The National Forum for Research and Development had recently recommended founding a national program to advance research and development in artificial intelligence and data science.
In the program’s first round last year, six other companies – Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems, Razor Labs, RoboGroup, Korentec Technologies and Qualitest – participated.
This time, the five companies will form a nonprofit that offers three levels of studies – AI engineer, AI scientist and AI expert. The teachers will be senior employees, and classes will include 600 instruction hours over four months. Prospective students include developers and engineers with degrees and significant experience.
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In the past, the Innovation Authority funded programs to bring new population groups into Israel’s high-tech industry and to train unskilled workers for a career change. This program, however, focuses on highly-skilled workers who already earn some of the country’s highest salaries, and presumably will enable them to earn even more.
There is high demand for artificial intelligence skills, and the companies have a manifest interest in participating in the program. The participating employees also have an incentive, so it’s not clear why government involvement and aid is needed.
Furthermore, some of the program participants are flush with cash. For example, Microsoft had revenues of $143 billion in 2020, while Matrix, an Israeli company, had revenues of 2.8 billion shekels and net profit of 130 million shekels for the first three quarters of 2020. While the program is costing the Innovation Authority only a few million shekels, the question arises as to why those funds aren’t being directed toward smaller Israeli companies with less funding.
Dr. Tomer Simon, the chief scientist at Microsoft Israel R&D, stated that while there are some 320,000 high-tech workers in Israel on LinkedIn, only 3,000 are AI specialists. If the program trains another 250 employees, that’s nearly a 10% increase, he said.