Tel Aviv University Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel (74) is currently helping Israel become a superpower in artificial intelligence (AI). for a good cause. In 2010, the top expert persuaded the government to invest in cyber security. He came up with a plan and it worked. Israel is now a world leader in the cyber field. It can compete with countries that are much larger. Professor Ben-Israel wants to adopt a similar strategy with AI.
In the first part of this eXXpress interview, Professor Ben-Israel explains how this was achieved and why being a small country can also be an advantage. The second part of the interview will be published on Saturday and it revolves around artificial intelligence.
He developed a cyber strategy for Israel in 2011. Today, Israel is a leading global cyber superpower. You are now leading a task force on behalf of the Israeli government to present a plan on how Israel can become a world leader in AI. Are you following the same strategy as Cyber here?
When it comes to implementation, the same logic as in 2011 applies to cyber. At that time, this included teaching cyber security in schools as well. You can’t just start in universities. It’s like driving a car: you don’t get your license until you’re 17 or 18, but when you’re six you’re learning how to live in a world with cars. , crossing the road, looking left and right , pay attention to the traffic lights above.
For example, in Israel, my eight-year-old grandson is now learning at school how to behave on social networks, for example what he posts on Facebook. Psychology also plays a role: How are people tricked into giving up their passwords? But we don’t teach elementary school students how to code – they’ll learn it later in high school. So the first question is: how should one live in this world? It is about much more than technology in the narrow sense.
Israel competes with much larger countries in cyber security. Was education the key to enabling Israel from a small country to become a global leader?
Yes. But it’s about more than just education, it’s about an entire ecosystem, which in my opinion consists of at least three core elements. The education system – from primary schools to universities – is one of them. You won’t believe it, but when I presented the cyber plan to the government in 2011, there was not a single university in the world where you could study cyber security! Universities were located here in the Middle Ages.
The second major pillar is industry. If you want to be a real player in cybersecurity, you have to develop solutions. Computer technology is a major technology of our times which helps in improving our lives. Also, we are becoming more dependent on computers every minute, making us more vulnerable and vulnerable to cyber attacks. You have to develop the right technology as quickly as possible and make it available to the entire society. For that you need industry. It is not enough to have people who understand cyber security and AI. Necessary applications should also be created.
In many ways the third cornerstone is government. I would like to highlight only two aspects. First, the government regulates what we are allowed to do with rules. Some old rules have become out of date in the new modern world. Then there’s rescue. What applies to civil society is often even more important for defence. This also requires investment.
It was a comprehensive strategy. Of course you could also say: I enjoy everything produced in the United States. But if you want to become a player yourself then you will have to deal with the entire ecosystem including law, psychology, social sciences. It is not just about computer science and engineering.
Other states are also concerned with cyber – but mainly in relation to their secret services and military. Was this the difference?
When we started what we now call cyber revolution in 2011, many countries were engaged in cyber security and cyber technology, especially through intelligence agencies. They began doing this in the 1980s, when people first stored information in computer-based media. So the secret services developed ways to hack computers – albeit in extremely covert ways. If some military defense establishments had cyber security units, we were not allowed to talk about them openly after our military service was over. This was the situation not only in Israel, but all over the world.
In 2011 we decided to stop and go public. Meanwhile, the whole society became dependent on computers. As I said: we needed industry too. There were no industries at that time, at best small ones, with a total turnover of about US$300 million per year. Last year the total turnover of the cyber industry in Israel reached more than ten billion dollars.
2011 started with startups. By the way, the overall success rate of startups in Israel is four percent. Any new startup has a 96 percent chance of failure. Some became successful companies, some even became unicorns, now worth more than a billion dollars. There are about 500 cyber unicorns worldwide, 150 of them in Israel, about a third, although we do not make up a third of humanity.
Can being a small country also be an advantage?
One important point was this: We started early. Moreover, it was about people’s awareness: we involved the entire ecosystem – society, industry, government, education – so that we could be coherent. Small countries like Israel are especially good at this. It’s more difficult with medium-sized countries like Germany and the US is too big for that. So, in that regard, being a small country can be an advantage.