Israeli support for AI slipping, Nvidia executive says

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November 15, 2017 15:50

Japanese and Chinese supercomputers may leave start-up nation in the dust

3 minute read.



Hi-tech employees attend Nvidia’s GPU Technology conference in Tel Aviv

Hi-tech employees attend Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference in Tel Aviv last month, held for the first time in Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel will miss out on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence if the government fails to allocate more money for research-and-development in building supercomputers, a local executive from tech firm Nvidia warned.

While countries such as China and Japan have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building the world’s fastest supercomputer – which can run at a speed of 130 petaflops, performing some 130 quadrillion (million billion) calculations per second, according to CNN – Israel may not be investing enough to keep up with the AI arms race.

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“I get phone calls from professors [asking], ‘How can we use AI to accelerate research?’” Nati Amsterdam, Nvidia’s senior director for business development, told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in his Tel Aviv office on Tuesday. “It’s something the government should sponsor. Otherwise, what will happen? They’ll look for grants outside Israel and when the technology is mature enough, it won’t stay in Israel.

We need to see some investment coming from the government and the Israel Defense Forces on AI... It should be a national priority and it’s not.”

Paraphrasing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comment in September that the country which rules AI will run the world, Amsterdam said he has been speaking every week with government and defense officials to implore them to allocate more to AI investments, lest Israel fall further behind.

He added that the IDF has seen potential in AI from cameras with biometric identification – a tool that could have made this past summer’s security crisis on the Temple Mount crisis obsolete.

AI and machine learning – in which software writes itself and machines can learn from pattern recognition – require massive data processors. This is where Nvidia enters the local picture with its graphics processing units, processors that are used in many Israeli startups.

Last month, the California- based maker of data processors held its annual GPU Technology Conference in Tel Aviv, where Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang touted Israeli entrepreneurship in front of some 1,500 developers and hi-tech executives.

Amsterdam explained, “AI touches everything that we’re doing... We have the spectrum of the world in Israel. We have start-ups on one hand, which really creates the innovation and creates new things. The defense industry, the Israel Defense Forces, the military industry... is the biggest partner for developing and incubating new technologies.” He noted that Israel exports some seven billion dollars’ worth of various technologies annually and added, “It’s a huge field where Nvidia can play.”

Local R&D investment comprises a greater percentage of GDP in Israel than in any other developed country, according to the Israel Innovation Authority, and venture capital investments in Israel comprise the highest share of GDP per capita worldwide. But according to Amsterdam, the country will lose its competitive edge in AI without more supercomputers.

Private R&D in AI cannot supplant public expenditure in the field, he said, arguing that governments can mobilize further-ranging resources and bring together multiple stakeholders. The AI market is expected to be worth some $37 billion by 2025, according to Intel firm Tractica, as it revolutionizes industries across-theboard and automates jobs that historically have been done by people.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment directly about AI and referred the query to the Israel Innovation Authority, which could not be reached prior to press time.

Some 20 people, mostly engineers, are employed at Nvidia’s R&D center in Tel Aviv, where they focus on deep learning, graphics and AI technologies. The company hopes to rapidly expand to at least 100 employees in the near future.

As a competitor to companies like Intel – one of Israel’s largest private-sector employers, with some 10,000 employees throughout the country – Nvidia is the clear underdog. When asked to comment, Amsterdam replied, “Do you know David and Goliath?” Nvidia also runs an accelerator program called Inception, which has sought out some 200 early-stage Israeli start-ups in AI, offering many of them technical and financial support, in exchange for a piece of the startup’s equity.

The company, which has historically focused on GPU processors for gaming, providing the development platform, has recently transitioned into the competitive AI and visual computing markets.

Nvidia has been in Israel for a decade, engaged in ventures ranging from selling its GPUs to buying multi-million dollar stakes in Israeli start-ups such as Zebra Medical and cybersecurity firm Deep Instinct. The company employs some 11,000 people worldwide and has a market valuation of $128.5 billion. Its share price on the Nasdaq has more than doubled in the past year.


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