The AI race is on and it’s open to all

Whether it be Alibaba vs. Amazon, Tencents vs. Facebook or Tsinghua University vs. MIT, it is safe to say that more and more of the China-US competition boils down to mastering the powers of AI.

Artificial intelligence (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Artificial intelligence
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Over the past few months the world has witnessed the United States and China taking measures and countermeasures against each other in a trade war that may affect not only these two leading economies but the rest of the world.
A partial explanation to the origin of recent developments can be found in China’s ambitious plan, “Made in China 2025,” that challenges the US dominance in the tech world and seeks to replace it as the dominating tech superpower by the year 2025. While the competition involves a diverse spectrum of tech domains – semiconductors, robotics, aerospace, etc. – the area that is most likely going to be at the center on this tech race is artificial intelligence (AI) and its ever-expanding applications in all industries and all around us.
Whether it be Alibaba vs. Amazon, Tencents vs. Facebook or Tsinghua University vs. MIT, it is safe to say that more and more of the China-US competition boils down to mastering the powers of AI and its numerous application areas.
The competition between these two giants is already on and is likely to intensify in the coming years. But, the AI race is not just a duel between the US and China. In fact, there are many other participants in this race.
When considering the assets needed to excel in AI, a country’s size and abundance of natural resources are not important. The determining factor lies in its human resources, the way they are educated and trained and the mechanisms that drive them efficiently and effectively towards achieving a common goal. Here’s where Israel, despite its small size and many other constraints, has some major advantages that have already made it one of the global leaders in the AI race.
Start-up Nation: The story of Israel’s economic miracle, published almost a decade ago, describes the advantages that enabled Israel to have the second largest absolute number of tech start-ups after Silicon Valley, and number one, by far, when measured on a per capita basis. Even more amazing is that Israel has the third largest number of companies on Nasdaq – after the US and China. How, many ask, can this be possible?
Much of this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that Israelis operate differently than larger, more established counterparts. Israelis are used to operating faster, cheaper and on a smaller scale. Israelis tend to streamline things, making them more efficient while getting rid of anything that is not absolutely necessary to meet the end goal. Sometimes it means cutting a corner or two, with the risk that it will come back to haunt us. “Lean and mean” is not just a slogan, in many cases it is the entire playbook.
While many people have noted the large number of start-ups in Israel (~6000), few know that nearly half of them are related to the various areas of AI.
Similarly, many have heard of the purchase of Mobileye, an Israeli company that revolutionized the world of autonomous vehicles, by Intel for $15.3 billion (the largest M&A in Intel’s history). Few, however, are aware of the fact that CS Rankings, a metrics-based ranking of top computer science institutions, ranks Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, as 6th in the world in the fields of AI over the past 15 years.
Six of the top 10 universities in this ranking hail from the US, while only two are from China, a testimony to the edge US universities currently hold over their Chinese counterparts. However, the presence of the National University of Singapore and the Technion in the top 10 proves the important role played by other participants in the race, particularly those coming from small countries.
The intensity of AI-related R&D efforts in Israel in general, and particularly at the Technion, is unprecedented, leading to numerous applications in banking, cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles, defense and homeland security, health and medicine, agri-tech, environment and energy, robotics, and more. AI and big data are also at the heart of the Jacobs Technion Cornell Institute – a joint venture between the two universities on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
I have no doubt that whichever autonomous vehicle you end up “driving,” whatever kind of domestic robot one day takes out your dog, or whichever fin-tech solution monitors your investments while you are asleep, many will have some made-in-Israel technology inside.  
Take healthcare for example. Not too long ago, comprehensive digital records of patients were considered science fiction. Some of the first steps in this direction were taken years ago by Israel, which, largely due to its unique public healthcare structure, pioneered the digitalization of medical records, allowing easy sharing among service providers. As it turned out, this also created some of the largest and most reliable digital public health databases in existence.
And now, the next phase of this revolution is coming into focus. With the advance of smart mobile devices (phones, watches, etc.), a growing number of personal bio-markers can be monitored on an ongoing basis. This development was at the heart of Apple’s unveiling of its latest watch, the series 4, which is complete with a built-in electrocardiogram and fall detection. “Apple Watch has become an intelligent guardian for your health” explained Apple CEO Tim Cook.
In Haifa, Technion researchers, working with a major Israeli health maintenance organization, are busy analyzing such information and combining it with medical records in ways that will enable us to receive better preventive care and real-time personal medical advice and treatment. Two months ago, the Israeli government launched the Digital Israel program, which includes a major allocation for sequencing the genomes and/or exomes (the coding part of the genome) of 100,000 Israeli volunteers over the next five years. The knowhow created from these efforts, once perceived to benefit only specific patients, will now facilitate better identification of general trends, detection of outbreaks of epidemics much earlier than today’s methods, and more.
And it does not stop there.
Two Technion researchers have recently published an article presenting a revolutionary system for the development of new drugs. Founded on artificial intelligence and deep learning, the system is expected to dramatically shorten the time and reduce the costs of drug development.
These examples illustrate some of the benefits one can gain from developing AI technologies in a small, close-knit country like Israel, where tight collaboration between universities, industry and government are much easier to achieve than in the US or China.
It should come as no surprise that a growing number of Chinese-based companies (such as Alibaba and Weiwei) are considering joining US-based IT corporations (such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and many others) who have long ago established R&D centers in Israel and that AI is at the focus of the research done in many of these centers.
A few weeks ago, Technion & Intel made a joint announcement regarding the establishment of a new research center dedicated to AI technologies, which is not only a substantial leap forward for the parties involved, but also serves as more evidence that the fate of the race for technological dominance is just as much in the hands of Haifa and Singapore, as it is in the hands of NYC and Beijing.
The author is the vice president for external relations and resource development at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.