From the Golem of Prague to artificial intelligence

Czech-Israeli cooperation in the sciences is booming

Prague has a rich Jewish history and inspiring Jewish presence (photo credit: ZORAN KOVAČEVIĆ)
Prague has a rich Jewish history and inspiring Jewish presence
(photo credit: ZORAN KOVAČEVIĆ)
When Professor Boaz Golany of the Technion gave a speech to visiting students from the Czech Technical University in Prague several years ago, he described the Golem of Prague as a metaphor for artificial intelligence (AI). The Golem is part of Jewish tradition and is well known to every Czech. The legend of the Golem and his 16th-century creator, Rabbi Loew Judah ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal, has been an integral part of popular culture in Czechia since the end of the 19th century. When people can share such complicated metaphors, it is no wonder there are currently a number of Czech-Israeli research projects using AI in different fields that assist communication between robots of different autonomous vehicles, find an optimal path for robots maneuvering with drones or improve robotic physiotherapy treatment.
Quite a few Czech intellectuals have been fascinated with the connection of the Golem to the development of science. This past September was the 100th anniversary of the publication of R.U.R., the dystopian play by the Czech author Karel Čapek that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language and to the world of science. Čapek himself said that his robots were Golems in mass production.
The Czech Republic is a young country, but its current capabilities have deep historical roots going back centuries. The Czech lands were the area of “innovative industry” since the 19th century, when it was the most industrialized part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A strong tradition of engineering, machinery, construction, and chemistry was also reflected in the lives of Czech Jews. They were well integrated into society, and from 1870, their university education became more focused on business and engineering. Jewish architects and engineers from the Czech lands earned international prestige. Karl Arnstein, one of the greatest engineers of the 20th century in the United States, worked on the modern reinforced concrete construction of the Chur-Arosa Railway bridge in Switzerland and later designed more than eighty giant airships. Architect Antonín Raymond was a founder of modern architecture in Japan. Many Czech Jews have significantly contributed in that capacity to build Israeli cities and different industries.
The Holocaust tragically changed Czech-Jewish cohabitation and possibilities for mutual inspiration as the vast majority of Czech Jewry was killed by the Nazis. The forty years of communism that followed were mostly accompanied by anti-Israeli policy and rhetoric. However, in the past 30 years, Czech-Israeli relations have bloomed, and business has followed suit. Czechs are internationally known for their high-tech engineering. Škoda Auto is probably the best-known Czech industrial brand in Israel. Czechs have a highly competitive car industry, which has provided opportunities for Israeli inventions to enter the international market. Tatra trucks have been successfully utilized by the IDF and Israeli firefighters. Mejzlik, a small Czech engineering firm, collaborated with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop the counter-rotating propeller system for the Air-Taxi.
Czech companies also bring high value to complicated construction projects. Dekonta, the leading Czech environmental services and technologies company, participated in a bioremediation project of contaminated soil at the Beersheva Railway Station. The JUTA company supplied high-density polyethylene (HDPE) geomembranes for the Habonim water reservoir project in the Carmel coastal area near Haifa.
Many more opportunities are on the way. The Czech ICT company Tesco SW is developing brain diagnostic software for Parkinson’s disease that can be used in Israel. Last year the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival brought together innovators, who announced the creation of the Czech-Israeli platform of FinTech companies in early November. They also want to support bilateral tourism and business financing.
Perhaps the Czech-Israeli collaboration in the sciences can be best epitomized by Jakub Abramson, an immunology professor at Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Professor Abramson was born in Prague and made Aliyah ten years ago. He is very enthusiastic about Czech-Israeli collaboration. “It is important for me to strengthen Czech and Israeli collaboration.  In the Czech Republic, there is great potential for science. They have amazing potential that they don’t use and exploit properly.” Professor Abramson has done many collaborations with Czech scientists, including a description of a new auto-immune disease that attacks the teeth and combining Israeli expertise in immunology with Czech know-how in medicinal chemistry. He is looking forward to spending the next academic year on sabbatical in Prague.
The cooperation in science has been growing, thanks to joint financial support from the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology and the Czech Ministry of Education. Currently, there are six Czech-Israeli projects examining the use of nanotechnologies in cleaning air or water, the use of AI in computer vision, the development of assistive devices for physiotherapy, planning for robotic laparoscopic surgery, and conflict-free movement of self-driven vehicles. The successful research project should be followed by commercial success. Private and public support for accelerating innovations, creating joint start-ups, or removing barriers for innovative companies to offer their products in the partner country could bring the Czech-Israeli innovative cooperation to another level.
Czech-Israeli Innovation Days
Israelis usually do not see Czechia as a country of technology, science, software, and innovation. For that reason, the Czech-Israeli Mutual Chamber of Commerce launched a series of Czech-Israeli Innovation Days. They bring together experts and companies from both countries to develop opportunities for business and research. Topics have included biotechnology, water management, and smart healthcare. This year’s Innovation Day was originally scheduled to be devoted to nanotechnology. Due to the pandemic, the innovation day was postponed to next year. However, the current crisis has shown that last year’s agenda, which featured digital healthcare, came at the right time. In 2020, the advantages of telemedicine solutions and digital management of health services became much more apparent. Current challenges with COVID-19  illustrate the benefits of Czech-Israeli cooperation advantages, even with an informal agenda.  ‘In the past 30 years, Czech-Israeli relations have bloomed, and business has followed suit.’
This article was written in cooperation with Donath Business & Media s.r.o.