Israeli chutzpah for the 21st century

A look at how the Jewish state's bold and ambitious approach to life made it a high-tech superpower.

Moshe Shoham, Mazor Robotics founder (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moshe Shoham, Mazor Robotics founder
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Earlier this year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced a new category for the Israel Prize in honor of the state’s 70th birthday: technology and innovation. The winner: Check Point CEO Gil Shwed.
In Shwed’s video message accepting the honor, the modern firewall’s inventor said, “Israel is a wonder and our industry, the hi-tech industry, transforms the innovative spirit that is pulsating here into products that improve the world and change the lives of all citizens of the world wherever they may be.”
Shwed is the only tech leader receiving the Israel Prize in honor of Israel’s birthday, but he is far from being Israel’s only hi-tech pioneer or inspiration.
“There are many talented, ambitious and hard-working people in Israel,” said Lior Sethon, deputy general manager of the Aftermarket Division of Mobileye, an Israeli technology company that develops vision-based advanced driver-assistance systems providing warnings for collision prevention.
But he said Israel’s superpower is not based on smarts alone. Rather it’s “Israeli chutzpah,” defined by flash drive inventor Dov Moran as a determination to “never give up too soon, because maybe you are just ahead of your time and the market could still rise and evolve”; coupled with the understanding that “it’s perfectly all right” to be agile, refine, improve, tweak and change; and that Israeli technology is meant to contribute added value to the world.
“It is sort of a religious belief that we have a task in this world and that task is to make everything a bit better,” said Moran.
As Israel turns 70, The Jerusalem Post talked with the country’s boldest, brightest and most successful hi-tech inventors and entrepreneurs, reflecting on technology we can celebrate as uniquely blue-and-white, and looking ahead at what’s on the horizon for the Jewish state.
Mobileye is a tiny digital camera with a sophisticated algorithm whose high-pitched beep alerts drivers, warning of impending collisions and detecting pedestrians.
The result: a 50% to 80% reduction in car accidents.
The Israeli company, acquired by Intel last year, has contracts with nearly all major automobile dealers, from GM to BMW. But according to Sethon, Mobileye’s greatest impact is not yet on the roads. By 2021, he expects the first driverless vehicle to roar its engine.
Mobileye is the leader in all three pillars of autonomous driving: sensing, mapping and setting driving policy.
Sethon explained that autonomous cars require sensors for basic driving functions like merging into traffic.
“Driving is a lot of negotiation based on intuition,” Sethon said. “So, this is something we’re working on putting into our software.”
New, high-definition maps are being generated by Mobileye with data that could allow vehicles to localize themselves accurately within a few centimeters. These maps could capture weather data, incident reports and construction information, crucial parts of the autonomous driving experience.
Finally, Mobileye is at the forefront of regulating driving in the autonomous vehicle era.
“Do you regulate the autonomous vehicle instead of the driver?” Sethon asks. “Do you regulate how autonomous vehicles shouldn’t run?” Sethon said the artificial intelligence era has created a race in the automotive industry.
“The automotive industry is experiencing a fascinating and exciting time,” he said, predicting that autonomous vehicles will take over as soon as 2025. “It will happen much sooner than anybody thinks.”
On the horizon: A safer era, said Sethon, with nearly no accidents after many years of tragic collisions. People will look back on car accidents like they do polio – “as a tragedy of the past.”
While Mobileye is changing what’s happening on the ground, Elbit Systems’ Space Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) unit is transforming how we see the world from above. Elbit makes a “space camera,” a compact, lightweight electro-optic observation system for government, commercial and scientific applications.
Ilan Porat, the space business unit’s senior director, said Elbit’s camera can take pictures from 500 kilometers away and deliver a digital image that appears taken almost up close.
Elop, which merged with Elbit in 2000, was founded 80 years ago, when it focused on optical systems with filters and binoculars.
Today, Elbit is No. 3 in the world in electro-optics and No. 1 outside America in performance to size of its cameras.
Currently, the defense company, which employs 12,500 people – 9,500 in Israel – has eight cameras orbiting in space, taking high-resolution images.
Even when it comes to the company’s space program, the first and primary client is the Defense Ministry. Porat said Elbit’s cameras are capturing strategic areas, airports and other landmarks.
“Certain areas are more important than others, so we launch in a special orbit or with a special inclination to get more images of them,” he explained. “Almost no one’s taking pictures of Antarctica.”
The company invests 9% of its profits – $292 million in 2016 – in R&D. Before a camera goes up in space, it is built and tested in a vacuum chamber that sits on a seismic bloc weighing 250 tons and floating on plyometric legs. The chamber has no mechanical contact with the outside world and is isolated from normal earth vibrations – e.g. a truck rumbling or a person’s voice – that could interfere with measurement. Once a camera enters the chamber, it is tested 24/7 for four to six months.
“We cannot make a mistake, because there is no maintenance in space,” Porat quipped.
The future? Porat predicts a not-too-distant era of “commodity satellites.”
“Almost everyone will be able to get a picture that interests him: pollution, the status of the occupation, the seashore on a Saturday morning,” said Porat. “There will be hundreds of satellites monitoring the world in the next decade.”
And Daniel Farb will be preserving the world.
Farb’s Leviathan Energy innovated the Wind Tulip, a cost-effective, silent, vibration-free wind turbine designed as an aesthetic environmental sculpture, producing clean energy at high efficiency from any direction.
Farb said it could revolutionize energy consumption in Israel and cities worldwide.
“There are many windy areas in Israel,” Farb explained.
“The combination of wind and solar energy together is great for the energy grid. You can cover all parts of the day when electricity is needed most: the greatest winds tends to be in the later afternoon and solar is highest midday. Together, this could build an alternative to coal and gas burning.”
The Wind Tulip is unique in that it addresses challenges of developing a wind energy system in an urban environment.
Farb explained that buildings increase turbulence, and wind accelerates over them like air flows over an airplane wing, shifting direction slightly upward.
Farb’s technology keeps areas of turbulence separate from each other, which increases efficiency. He discovered what he calls a “cluster effect” for this type of turbine, which allows them to be placed close to each other and even improves wind energy performance by 20% to 50%. This enables a new business model of making rooftop farms of small turbines.
Finally, he developed a way to change wind’s aerodynamics to ensure that air hitting off a building does not interfere with the wind coming off its top.
“I tried to address all the important issues that prevented this from becoming a $100 billion industry,” said Farb, a 2005 immigrant raised in Manhattan who describes himself as passionate about everything from pollution to climate change to saving low-cost carbon.
“At this point, we’re ready to take off.”
“The future is still an open field,” for medical robotics, said Moshe Shoham, Mazor Robotics founder. The company’s Spine Assist, Renaissance and MazorX robots are transforming spine surgery from freehand procedures to highly accurate, increasingly safe, efficient operations with less need for radiation, and which are less invasive.
Based on a CT scan, the surgeon uses Mazor’s 3D planning software to plan the surgery, customized to the patient’s anatomy and diagnosis. Once in the operating room, the robot guides the surgeon precisely to the preplanned anatomical location where intervention is needed. About 30,000 surgeries have been performed with Mazor, including close to 200,000 spine implants, resulting in reduced clinical complication rates, reduced pain and increased recovery speed.
Shoham and Mazor were pioneers in medical robots 16 years ago when Mazor was founded. Today, Shoham said, other companies are taking similar routes.
The Mazor system is not independent and does not do the surgical operation on its own; the surgeon maintains full control of the system. But Shoham said that while the field is not ready for robots to take on surgical manipulation on their own, he does believe it will happen.
“We think there are special operations in which the robot excels and can do more and better than the surgeon, with higher accuracy and greater accessibility,” Shoham explained.
He believes the future will be nano-scale robots that can go inside a patient’s body and report back about how well a certain therapy is doing.
“Robots in the medical field are still in their infancy,” said Shoham. “But this is a field in which Israel will continue to bring new ideas to the market.”
For now, however, AI is this year’s buzzword, said Karin Eibschitz, Intel Israel’s development centers manager.
Intel Israel “changed the way we will think about computing forever,” with the 8088 processor, MMX and Centrino mobile technology, said Eibschitz. Now, it is about to do it again, she said.
Over the last few years, Intel Israel has been transforming into a data-centric company.
“We are in an era of being flooded with lots of data and this means there must be a transformation on all fronts,” Eibschitz explained, noting that by 2020 every “user” will produce 1.5 gigabytes of data every day and one autonomous car – remember, Intel owns Mobileye – will produce as much as four terabytes of data daily.
“We’ll need stronger towers to be able to compute this huge amount of data, better connectivity solutions because of the need to transfer so much data, the ability to analyze and process the AI, increased networking and security.”
For Intel, this means the marketplace is expanding to a much larger arena.
“We’re in the middle of a journey with a vision that everything runs on Intel,” said Eibschitz.
Intel Israel has more than 10,000 employees and Eibschitz oversees 7,000. She said her team is looking at the horizon as 2021 – “I think we can make a very significant part of this transformation by then.”
Eibschitz said technology is moving at a faster-than-ever pace, and people should expect to regularly see more products with new capabilities and performance levels.
“Change is the new normal in the coming decade,” said Eibschitz.
Will Israel be able to be agile enough to maintain its coveted nickname? “We have amazing people in this country, great universities and an amazing spirit of entrepreneurship,” said Moran.
“We are not really the ‘start-up nation.’ We are the hi-tech nation, and I hope we’ll continue developing things that bring good to the world.
“Actually, I don’t think anything can stop us.”