For decades, we’ve seen Artificial Intelligence (AI) as something that resides in sci-fi books and movies or in enigmatic, secretive labs in research institutions one could only access by belonging to an elite community of researchers, government officials, and other like-minded individuals.
Popular culture has often depicted AI as an integral part of a dystopian future. From the 1968 classic by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the highly advanced AI-based computer HAL 9000 is the main antagonist, to the Terminator blockbuster movie series, where the Skynet computer network tries to take over the world and destroy humanity, AI is depicted as no picnic for us humans.
Reality is somewhat different. Not only is AI an important part of our future, but it’s already an integral part of our everyday life. From the stock exchange and banks to autonomous vehicles, and from cyber security to automated online assistance, the use of AI in systems we employ daily is rising fast. This rise has given birth to a number of other fields that bear names such as Big Data, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Learning Systems, and more – all can be viewed as part of modern-day AI.
As the quantity and quality of information generated and registered by each of us reaches unprecedented levels, it was only a matter of time before new, more efficient ways of arranging and sorting these massive amounts of information into usable context begin to appear.
The further we move into the digital era, sometimes dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the more we see highly sophisticated systems created by service providers, government agencies, etc., that use AI to quickly identify patterns or anomalies and anticipate future needs of individuals and populations. These systems can analyze findings and implement the appropriate actions to address the need or solve the problem.
TAKE THE financial technology industry for example: originally focusing on back-end financial and trade applications, the use of AI has now expanded far beyond that.
Banks are now using the huge amounts of data they gather about their clients to offer tailor-made financial products based on forecasting needs and abilities. These come in the form of recommended loans, investments, credit lines, etc. The phone call from your credit card company asking whether you just bought an antique vase online is also a product of such systems. This leads us to yet another field where AI has become central: cyber security.
The cyber security industry, where Israel is a key player, is a perfect example of an industry that heavily relies on AI. The amount of information transferred and the speed at which it moves make these systems a necessity. There is no other way to monitor such huge amounts of data, identify anomalies in volume and/or content, and make the right decision regarding the needed response at the speed needed to prevent a cyber-terrorist attack that could inflict serious damage.
Healthcare is another field in which AI is playing a growing role. Israel pioneered the digitalization of medical records many years ago, allowing easy sharing between service providers, and along the way created some of the largest digital public health databases existing. Now, we see the next phase of this revolution. With the growing number of smart mobile devices (phones, watches, etc.), some of our personal biomarkers can be monitored on a regular basis. Sharing this information and combining it with our medical record will enable us to receive better preventive care and real-time personal medical advice and treatment.
On a larger scale, the information can be monitored to better identify general trends and detect, for example, outbreaks of epidemics much earlier.
Autonomous vehicles’ development is another field that has recently made headlines with some major deals involving Israeli technology being bought for billions of dollars.
Israel is indeed a major source of technology in this field.
The dependency of autonomous vehicles on AI technologies is obvious. So are the challenges still looming ahead.
However, it is important to remember that the possibilities are much wider – think, for example, of a comprehensive service that will take into consideration all relevant factors at any given moment (weather, traffic, pollution, public transportation, etc.) as well as our personal preferences, and offer the best way of reaching one’s destination.
Israel is a world leader in many areas of AI and can maintain its status provided it continues to invest in the right places, where such technologies are created. At Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, we are already taking the necessary measures to develop innovative AI technologies and prepare Israel’s engineers for a future economy where AI will be a dominant factor.
First, we are constantly adapting the content of what we teach to a fast-changing world. Some of the traditional basic skills, taught in technological universities worldwide for many years, are replaced with more up-to-date skills and knowledge. In that context, Technion was the first Israeli university to offer an accredited degree in data sciences and engineering.
Second, it is essential to prepare students across the board to work with Big Data. At Technion, that means more courses that introduce Big Data to fields that were not an obvious choice until recently. This derives from a forecast that Big Data will be integrated everywhere before too long.
Third, we recently established a number of new labs and research programs in areas such as cyber security, FinTech, autonomous systems, etc.; hired new faculty in these areas; attracted graduate and postgraduate students; and provided them with the equipment required to carry out cutting-edge research in these fields.
Fourth, we have partnered with Cornell University to launch a new university of applied science in New York where the core of our joint venture – the Jacobs Technion Cornell Institute, is heavily focused on Big Data.
Naturally, we are not alone in this race. Other Israeli universities, as well as many institutes around the world, have also taken significant steps to address the growing needs for AI research and education. The outcomes of this race are crucial to every aspect of our life – health, security, economic conditions, etc. – and no one wants to be left behind. As your grandma used to say, “You don’t want to find yourself in the horse’s corner during a race with the automobile, or siding with the hot air balloon against the airplane.” Embracing AI and Big Data ensures we will not.
The author is vice president for external relations and resource development at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.