Michael Fertik

This war will bolster Israel’s stature as an AI powerhouse

The conflict with Hamas is lots of things: terrible, sad and also fertile ground for massive and rapid technical innovation
IDF soldiers fire mortar shells towards targets in the Gaza Strip near the border with the Gaza Strip on January 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
IDF soldiers fire mortar shells towards targets in the Gaza Strip near the border with the Gaza Strip on January 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The horrific war in Gaza is accelerating the development of artificial intelligence. Israel will continue to rank among a tiny handful of free countries where AI will be invented, developed, and commercialized, not only in spite of the war against Hamas, but also – and with due acknowledgment of the grim necessity borne of war – because of this terrible conflict.

The most credible sources rounding up the top AI countries at the end of 2023 have ranked Israel fourth among the nations. That sounds about right, coming in after the United States, China, and the United Kingdom. Somewhat less genial lists place Israel in the sixth spot, right after Canada and Singapore. (I know, I find that funny, too, but let’s not quibble.)

Excellence in artificial intelligence depends on some of the same qualities and skill sets that have made Israel successful in the field of cyber security. There is an imperfect overlap between these two broad categories, but, hamevin yavin (those in the know, know), it matters. For one, most gains will generally go to astute investment in nimble software, not to enormous expenditure in hardware, where almost no small country can hope to compete.

Second, improvements in cyber defense rely on many of the same technical concepts and fields that lead to AI breakthroughs, such as deep learning and neural networks.

Third, most wins will come from platform and application companies rather than foundational science enterprises, and though Israel can more than hold its own in both, its entrepreneurial class really excels in shipping picks and shovels.

Fourth, Israel is so damn good at cyber because the country is overflowing with exceptional daily practitioners: the frontlines of the world’s cyber wars crisscross the planet but doubtless run also through Tel Aviv. After military service, Israel’s brilliant cyber warriors go on to build marvelous companies. Israelis actually do cyber all the time, and that is now, suddenly and terribly, also true of the field of AI.

At this very moment, Israel, perhaps like its techno-spiritual cousin Ukraine, is in the very heart of the most vivid, kinetic, and data-rich artificial intelligence Cambrian explosion that has yet occurred in computer science history. All military eyes are on the Gaza and northern border theaters. Drones are producing and hoovering up reams of digital data that feed machine vision models. Audio feeds of digital communications are interpreted to assess, at lightning speed, threat presence and severity level. Millions of hours of video are simultaneously processed for target recommendations at velocities that are impossible for humans and that were unthinkable only two years ago. Even if, as we know, the IDF reviews targets with human expertise before strikes, the prioritization of which targets the intelligence officers should review can be queued with high accuracy by machines. Some of this stuff enters the territory of Sci-Fi: in the tunnels under Gaza, tiny listening devices will be used to detect numbers of terrorists, identify senior villains, model and visualize the sizes and volume of distant spaces, indicate presence of hostages, and even estimate the types of weapons the enemy has on hand.

This awful war – this shamefully necessary fight against the pernicious evil of Hamas, even with its ghastly collateral damage to civilian life – is like the wars that have come before it and the wars that will come after in many ways and certainly in one: it is generating massive and rapid technical innovation.

War and military necessity have always been associated with invention. We can credit military need for products as varied as duct tape, microwaves, GPS, and maybe even the Internet. This time, the conflict is giving rise to needs associated with asymmetrically fighting against enemies who rely on analog weaponry from the sky to the sea to apartment buildings to dimly-lit, booby-trapped tunnel systems unfavorable to radio communication located under and among dense civilian neighborhoods. Even if absolute precision in targeting enemy combatants is impossible, precision is never more necessary than now, and the investments by the IDF and its allies in achieving this precision fall under the rubric of artificial intelligence.

Today, even as Israel faces the sad reality that it must wage yet another existential war, the seeds of a brighter future are being sown. Israel’s crack software developers, computer scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs, now literally in the trenches, are learning the powerful lessons of what is possible, what is practical, and what is dreamable. The daily exercise of artificial intelligence is actually unfolding in real-time in Eretz AI. I am coming back to Israel this month to support the country, its economy, my friends, and my family. And you better believe I am coming back for another reason, too: to find today’s AI warrior heroes, who will soon become Israel’s AI champions of tomorrow.

About the Author
Michael Fertik is the Founder of Heroic Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based serial entrepreneur, and early-stage venture investor. His portfolio includes Israeli unicorns NextSilicon and Sunbit.
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