Israel Is Lagging on AI. It Will Now Invest Billions to Bridge the Gap

Israel risks losing its edge if it does not invest in artificial intelligence. A new programs aims to do that and develop AI infrastructure and natural language processing in Hebrew, Arabic

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
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Sophia, a robot integrating the latest technologies and artificial intelligence developed by Hanson Robotics is pictured during a presentation at the "AI for Good" Global Summit
Sophia, an artificial intelligence robot developed by Hanson Robotics, at the "AI for Good" Global Summit. Israel is now investing in AICredit: Denis Balibouse / REUTERS
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

Israel will invest billions of shekels in artificial intelligence and is seeking a national director for the field to help the Startup Nation shift to AI. Telem, the National Infrastructure Forum for Research and Development, has announced that it will begin searching for a “director of a national program to accelerate the field of artificial intelligence and data science.”

This forum is an umbrella organization for many agencies, including the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, the Israel Innovation Authority and the finance, science and defense ministries.

The goal is to hire the new director within 150 days. The specified job qualifications indicate that the forum is seeking someone from industry. “The director of this national program must be someone with knowledge of the field of AI, technological and managerial experience and familiarity with the public sector,” they state.

In December, TheMarker reported on the work of a committee on artificial intelligence headed by Dr. Orna Berry. After 10 months of work, the committee drafted a plan to promote the field in Israel.

It concluded that even though the country has a bustling startup industry in AI, there are gaps in academia and research, in sophisticated computer infrastructure (mainly the lack of supercomputing) and in regulation that would enable AI applications to be used in both the public and the private sectors.

A Nvidia super computer

The comprehensive plan that the committee proposed involves substantial funding – 5.26 billion shekels ($1.6 billion) over five years. But due to the ongoing political chaos and the fact that a state budget hasn’t been passed in years, the program will be implemented in stages. The first stage, which has just been approved, will have a budget of 550 million shekels.

This initial stage has four components, of which the first is building supercomputing infrastructure in Israel. This means the state needs to solicit bids for building a supercomputer and regulate its use by all the groups interested in doing so, from academia to the defense establishment.

The second component is promoting natural language processing, meaning computers’ ability to understand natural language, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Currently, there aren’t enough applications that can understand Semitic languages, whether spoken or written, and then transcribe them or translate them into action.

The third element is developing a plan to increase human capital in Israeli academia. Today, leading AI researchers move overseas for their academic careers or are “stolen” by industry. Each such researcher creates a community of master’s and doctoral students around themselves, making it doubly important to keep them doing academic research in Israel.

The fourth is creating a regulatory environment that supports applications of AI rather than hindering them. For instance, TheMarker recently reported on the problems makers of automated vehicles have encountered in Israel.

Berry, who led the effort to launch both programs, said that “a professional director as well as a strong advisory committee have been appointed for our quantum program. This means the program’s entire budget was drafted on the basis of professional considerations. I hope we’re en route to a similar operation for the artificial intelligence program, with a professional director and a strong advisory committee.

“Our goal is to develop artificial intelligence to the level of a national forte, but it won’t be just an academic issue,” she added. “We want to bring about a change in the uses of AI, which will lead to increased labor productivity, contribute to economic growth and improve the quality of services to the public.”

Dr. Orna Berry: 'Our goal is to develop artificial intelligence to the level of a national forte'Credit: מגד גוזני

Between cyber and quantum

Members of Telem have agreed on the organizational and operational structure needed to carry out its program. “The supreme principle is setting up a lean structure that relies on functions, capabilities and tools that already exist in the bodies that are members of Telem,” the forum said in its letter of authorization.

This wording reflects the forum’s desire not to create more inflated government agencies that will later be impossible to streamline or shut down.

Telem’s plan is competing to some degree with a more expansive plan being promoted by Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel. He is considered the driving force behind Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, an agency that employs hundreds of people.

The head of Telem’s program will be housed in the Innovation Authority. “The director of the national program will be responsible for implementing the program, including the work of the organizations carrying it out,” the forum wrote. “The director’s decisions will be subordinate to a steering committee.”

The steering committee will function as a kind of board of directors to which the program director will report. It will be comprised of the heads of all the organizations that are members of Telem.

“The Innovation Authority will be the agency that hosts the national program director and will put its staff’s capabilities at his disposal, including legal advice and marketing and public relations operations,” the letter of authorization said. “Nevertheless, the program director’s decisions will require approval from the steering committee.”

“Each of the bodies that are members of the steering committee will have one vote,” it continued. “The steering committee’s decisions will be made by a majority of the votes, though it will aspire to unanimous agreement, and these decisions will obligate all the partners.”

The steering committee will supervise the plan’s implementation. In addition, there will be an advisory council – a volunteer group of experts from academia and industry who are at the forefront of the field and “up to date on the material.”

The national plan for AI is very similar to the national plan to promote quantum technologies that was launched in 2019. That program already has a director.

The difference is that quantum technology is still in its infancy – meaning it’s still at the academic stage, and the number of Israeli startups involved in the field can be counted on the fingers of two hands. In contrast, AI is already at the market stage, and there are thousands of Israeli startups in this field.



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