Given the current hype surrounding ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence programs, one might have thought that AI was a very new technology with a very short history.
However, it has taken many years of research and development to get to this stage, and Israelis – and Jews generally– have played an important role in this story.
Who are some of the Israeli and Jewish pioneers and innovators in artificial intelligence?
Mobileye, founded in 1999, stands out as Israel’s largest company in terms of market capitalization, with a value more than double that of the next largest. The company owes its success to its pioneering research in the AI technology of computer vision. At the time of the company’s inception, Israel had limited AI companies and expertise in the field, and there was little support for AI in universities and the commercial sector. As a result, many of the leading Israeli AI experts of today pursued their studies or gained experience abroad before returning home.
Prof. Amnon Shashua, the founder of Mobileye, is widely regarded as the father of AI in Israel. After completing his PhD and postdoctoral training at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, he returned to Israel in 1996, when the field was still in its infancy here. Mobileye’s emergence marked a breakthrough in the industry, as it was one of the first companies to successfully scale the emerging AI field of computer vision.
Kira Radinsky is another prominent figure in the field, recognized as one of the pioneers of predictive AI that employs machine learning techniques to identify data patterns from the past and leverage them for future predictions. Radinsky acquired her machine learning expertise while working at Microsoft headquarters in the US. Her work played a crucial role in predicting cholera outbreaks in Angola and Cuba. Radinsky subsequently founded SalesPredict, a company that utilized this technology, which was subsequently acquired by eBay.
Leading academics at Israeli universities have also followed a similar trajectory. Lior Wolf, a professor at the School of Computer Science at Tel Aviv University, pursued his postdoctoral studies at MIT after obtaining a PhD from Hebrew University under the guidance of Amnon Shashua.
Prof. Ido Dagan, the founder of the Natural Language Processing Lab at Bar-Ilan University, completed his PhD at the Technion before spending three years at AT&T Bell Labs in the US. Dagan is renowned for his breakthrough in natural language processing (NLP), where he contributed to solving the problem of recognizing when the meaning of one text snippet is encompassed within the meaning of another text through a technique known as entailment.
Another academic from Bar-Ilan, Prof. Yoav Goldberg, is also an expert in natural language processing and serves as the research director of the Israeli branch of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Goldberg conducted his postdoctoral research at Google Research in New York.
Prof. Nir Friedman, an expert in machine learning at Hebrew University, pursued his PhD at Stanford University and conducted postdoctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley. Additionally, Shie Mannor, a professor at the Data and Decisions faculty at the Technion, completed his postdoctoral studies at MIT.
One notable expert who bridges the gap between the US and Israel is Prof. Shafi Goldwasser. Born in New York to Israeli parents, she attended high school in Tel Aviv before studying at both Carnegie Mellon University and Berkeley. Goldwasser eventually attained a professorship at MIT, which she balances with her teaching responsibilities at the Weizmann Institute.
Goldwasser is an authority in cryptography and co-invented both probabilistic encryption, which serves as the foundation of computer security today, and zero-knowledge proofs. In recognition of her contributions, she received the Turing Award, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for computing, in 2012. Goldwasser has also been at the forefront of applying machine learning to this field.
Collaboration between academia and industry has historically been less prevalent in the information and communication technology fields in Israel compared to the life sciences, where universities have played a significant role in conducting research. However, artificial intelligence has emerged as an exception to this trend.
The field of AI faces a considerable shortage of top talent, and companies often need to bring in leading experts from academia to access the best minds. Unlike more theoretical disciplines, the knowledge possessed by these individuals directly translates into the day-to-day work of enterprises in AI. Meanwhile, academics in this field are enticed by the commercial sector, as it offers opportunities to leverage vast computing power that may not be available within university settings and enables them to put their ideas to the test.
Radinsky, for instance, honed her expertise in predictive AI during her time at Microsoft in Seattle while pursuing her PhD. This gave her not only access to their advanced facilities but also the privilege of collaborating with top experts in the field. Today, she is a visiting professor at the Technion while leading her own start-up, Diagnostic Robotics.
Shashua has maintained his position at Hebrew University while simultaneously founding and leading Mobileye and AI21Labs. The latter is a start-up that developed Wordtune, an AI-driven writing tool, and is considered one of the main competitors to OpenAI and other generative AI companies.
Wolf is involved in running Mentee Robotics, an AI-driven robot company. Friedman, on the other hand, serves as a co-founder of Senseera, a medical technology company. Meanwhile, Mannor has founded two companies and contributed to two others throughout his career. As for Goldwasser, in addition to her role as a co-founder of Duality Technologies, a secure data analytics company, she serves as an adviser to several other start-ups in the security domain.
One former Israeli making a huge impact in the field is Ilya Sutskever. Born in Russia, he came to Israel at age five and lived in Jerusalem. A child prodigy, he was already studying at the Open University while in high school before moving to Canada, where he studied computer science. After working at Google on various AI projects, he left in 2015 to start OpenAI with Elon Musk, Greg Brockman, and Sam Altman, where he became director. He has made breakthroughs in both computer vision and NLP.
Sutskever’s contribution, along with Altman’s, continues a long line of Jewish contributors to the development of the field that go back to its earliest days. Although the concept of computers solving problems like humans was initially conceived by British mathematician Alan Turing, the technology of his time in 1950 was far from capable of achieving such feats.
However, in the late 1950s, significant efforts were made to establish the theoretical foundations of AI. Several researchers began to develop key concepts, such as machine learning and the utilization of logic and probability for problem-solving.
One of the notable contributors to the field was Marvin Minsky, a prolific inventor who joined the faculty of MIT in 1958. He played a pivotal role in establishing the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory there in 1959, which later became a destination for Shashua. Minsky firmly believed in the endeavor to instill common-sense reasoning capabilities into machines.
Minsky not only built the first neural network machines, SNARC, but also developed numerous AI models. He published groundbreaking works that aimed to define intelligence, such as The Society of Mind, and explored the workings of the human mind in books like The Emotion Machine. Additionally, Minsky served as a consultant for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, providing guidance to director Stanley Kubrick on making the human-like computer, HAL, more authentic. Minsky was honored with the Turing Award in 1969.
Also at MIT, Gerald Sussman contributed to AI research from the mid-1960s, focusing on understanding the problem-solving strategies employed by scientists and engineers with the goal of automating parts of the process. He also applied AI to computer-aided design and played a role in creating design tools for very large-scale integration (VLSI), a technique enabling the development of specialized computers.
Herbert Simon, possibly the most versatile among this group, had a PhD in political science and spent his career at Carnegie Mellon University. He made significant contributions to economics, winning a Nobel Prize in 1978; to computer science, where he received the Turing Award for his work in AI in 1975 (the only person to have won both prizes); and psychology, where he garnered numerous accolades. Simon published hundreds of papers and is one of the most cited authors in the field of AI.
Simon’s work in economics and psychology focused on human decision-making and rationality, which led him into the field of AI. In collaboration with Allen Newell, he developed programs for problem-solving in the late 1950s, including the Logic Theory Machine and the General Problem Solver. Simon strongly believed in the eventual capabilities of AI, envisioning that computers would surpass the world’s best chess players by the late 1960s and mimic not only human reasoning but also emotional abilities. He concluded that “machines will be capable of doing any work a man can do.”
In the 1960s, the first practical applications of AI started to emerge. The first chatbot, created in 1966 by MIT Prof. Joseph Weizenbaum, showcased the potential of this new technology. Weizenbaum’s ELIZA program simulated the responses of a therapist using pattern matching. It felt so real, that his secretary asked him to leave the room during testing, as the conversation became deeply personal. Although Weizenbaum was skeptical about the potential of AI and created ELIZA to demonstrate the limitations of computers rather than their intelligence, the possibilities of the technology became evident.
Edward Feigenbaum pursued his doctorate under Herbert Simon at Carnegie Mellon, building upon his supervisor’s theories to create EPAM, a computer model of human learning. Feigenbaum joined Stanford University in 1965, where he established the computer science department and the Knowledge Systems Laboratory. In the 1970s, his group developed “expert systems,” a novel approach to problem-solving that relied on sets of rules and found applications in various fields such as medicine, finance, and law.
In 1980, Feigenbaum co-founded IntelliCorp, an early AI company that aimed to develop computerized expert systems across different industries. However, the company did not achieve the expected success, and the industry faced setbacks. Feigenbaum received the Turing Award in 1994 for his work in developing complex AI systems and showcasing their commercial potential.
During the 1980s, AI research faced a decline in funding and stagnation, often referred to as the “AI winter.” However, an Israeli-born professor emerged with a groundbreaking approach in the late 1980s, breaking the rut.
Judea Pearl, originally from Tel Aviv, with a background in electrical engineering from the Technion, began his work in AI when he joined UCLA’s Computer Science Department in 1970. Pearl is widely regarded as the inventor of Bayesian networks, a mathematical framework for describing complex probability models.
Before Pearl, AI relied heavily on classical logic, which exhibited limitations. However, Pearl took a different path by utilizing probability, causing a revolution in the field with the publication of his book Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems in 1988. His theories were widely adopted, leading to significant changes in AI, as well as in other scientific disciplines. In 2012, Pearl received the Turing Award for his contributions.
The Jewish contribution to AI’s long development has been considerable and continues to this day, along with the collaboration between AI scientists in Israel and those abroad. As governments and companies invest huge sums in this field, we can expect to see many more examples of this in the coming years. ■
Meir Valman has been involved in the investment industry and Israeli tech industry for many years. He is currently writing a book on the history of Israeli hi-tech.