The State of Israel is known as one of the world’s leading hi-tech nations. During the first two phases of the digital revolution, known as the ICT era and the cyber era, Israel established itself as a juggernaut in the cyber sphere. Currently, Israel has the opportunity to leverage existing advantages to transition into the third phase, known as “Intelligent Systems.”
About ten years ago, the cyberattack against the Iranian centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz surfaced as public knowledge. Overnight, the issue of cyber warfare transformed from a secret, shared by small intelligence and security circles, to the world’s most popular topic of conversation.
There were several reasons for this. First, it was a “story” that captured the imagination of the world, and particularly that of the media. While the world was debating the most effective approach in preventing the advancements of the Iranian nuclear program , it became apparent yet covert that the program suffered a major setback as the centrifuges had been destroyed without a single round of fire. Second, the general consensus shifted as the image of the cyber world, once thought of as a distant space with no real world implications began to expose dangerous and threatening consequences. By using the Stuxnet virus, the attack inflicted physical damage that was not only virtual. Indeed, the centrifuges actually crashed in the real world. From a psychological viewpoint, physical threats have a far more dramatic effect. Essentially, what are the defining consequences as hackers expand their abilities to penetrate computer systems that are associated with critical infrastructure, such as those used to drive a train or operate an aircraft?
Following reports on the cyber attack in Iran in 2010, the world’s view of the potential of cyber warfare dramatically changed. Cyber warfare evolved into a common topic of conversation, a source of income for various types of criminals, a weapon in the hands of terrorist organizations as well as hostile countries, and a tool in the war over public opinion, which enabled its users to disseminate fake news and intervene in elections. An urgent and national need for protection against the newly discovered threat emerged among private and public sectors.
For this reason, in late 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, appointed me to head a task force (“The Cybernetic Initiative”) that would prepare the State of Israel for the expected leap in the number of threats. The Israeli Parliament (Knesset) discussed the recommendations provided by the task force which were ultimately sanctioned in August 2011. As of early 2012, the Israel National Cyber Bureau operates within the Prime Minister’s Office as the primary initiative to protect the country against cyber threats.
A Tradition Since the State of Israel’s Existence
Historically, the Cybernetic Initiative is the continuation of a well-established tradition that has guided the leaders of the State of Israel since its existence. This tradition is founded upon the principles of maintaining a scientific-technological leadership position at the forefront of global knowledge in fields that are critical to national security. In comparison to its enemies, Israel’s leaders recognized its challenging gap in relation to accessible resources. Essentially, Israel’s answer to this gap relied heavily on developing qualified scientific and technological capabilities.
Early on, the Cybernetic Initiative Task Force realized that the rate at which cyber technology progresses and evolves is too fast to predict the expected threats, search for solutions for those threats and prepare a long-term plan for developing and implementing respective solutions. Apparently, a single generation of computer and software technology is a year to eighteen months, so there is no way to predict the threats five years in advance (3-4 generations ahead!), which is the minimum period of time required in order to consolidate and implement a comprehensive plan at the national level. The only possible way to cope with an evolving threat at such a rate is to teach and train the best human minds among us, develop the appropriate organization and provide them with the most suitable supply of cyber technologies. If done properly, those trained will be able to promptly identify the threats that emerge in the future (which cannot be predicted today) and handle them swiftly, provided the “market” offers them with an extensive range of suitable technologies.
Accordingly, the recommendations of the Cybernetic Initiative Task Force addressed all of the elements that constitute the ecosystem outlined above. These elements included: high school education (the State of Israel is the only country in the world where cyber technology may be selected as a subject for one’s matriculation examinations); higher education (academic degrees in cyber technology); basic academic research (cyber research centers were established at top universities); policies that encourage industries to implement cyber initiatives (in particular the startup industry); suitable regulation and finally, cooperation with the defense/security services, which have always been and still remain the primary source for skilled personnel in this field. These recommended policies ultimately led to a cyber revolution that transcends the field of security. Because of its large impact on the national economy, the cyber revolution enhanced the State of Israel holistically, simultaneously advancing national security and economic efforts.
Therefore, the cyber revolution was properly executed by focusing on academia, industry, government and defense establishments as a holistic approach to establish Israel as a global cyber power. From an economic standpoint, this has also given Israel the opportunity to capitalize from its cyber efforts. For example, since 2017, cyber products and services exported from Israel accounted for about 10% of the global market and perhaps, more importantly, more than 20% of the entire global investment in cyber R&D was invested in Israel (2019).
The above reasoning also explains why the Blavatnik Cyber Studies Center, established at Tel Aviv University and in association with the Cybernetic Project, is interdisciplinary. With over 250 researchers, the Blavatnik Cyber Center is known as the country’s largest cyber institution and proudly hosts members from a diverse range of disciplines. Specifically, 2/3 of its members have a background in computer science, engineering or mathematics while the rest come from law, business administration and social sciences.
The Next Step: Intelligent Systems
As stated above, the pace of technological invention and innovation is increasing at an unprecedented rate compared to the past. As the State of Israel focuses on preparing for the impending technological revolutions, it faces a difficult question: which scientific-technological subject should be emphasized at the national level to achieve the dual objective of improving defense/security initiatives as well as economic-social initiatives? In addition, how do we continue to position Israel, once again, at the forefront of global knowledge in these respective fields? We must address this question as an essential and necessary initiative regarding Israel’s future in security, technology and economy.
The evolution of computers in the past fifty years and their pervasiveness has led to a situation where computers have become the dominant technology in our life. During the first phase, (“The Computer as a Platform”), these technologies provided computation and management capabilities that entered every organization as systems, and subsequently as networks. The second phase, which is currently in progress, is the “Cyber” phase which includes: the nearly total connectivity of computer and communication networks; the accessibility of the Internet to nearly every corner and person around the globe, the processing speed which enables the flow of massive amounts of information, the decreasing costs of computation and memory components, and the ability to store and process incomprehensible amounts of data. These contributing elements have changed the world of the cyber industry, the face of the economy and the fabric of human life. Subsequently, this change includes new threats that affect our life as individuals, as a society and as a state.
The third phase of the computer/digital revolution, which we are currently approaching, is a combination of the Artificial Intelligence scientific and technological accomplishments of the last four to five years. This combination of accomplishments leads computer technology to a stage where computer-based systems will generate new knowledge and function independently and “intelligently.” The scientific-technological basis on which this phase relies on is threefold: the exceptional progress made in artificial intelligence algorithms, particularly in the field of deep learning; the unprecedentedly powerful (and miniaturized) computing, communication and processing capabilities, including quantum technologies and these two combined with the mathematical processing of the massive databases we currently possess (data science).
When the fundamental scientific fields mentioned above are combined with other selected technologies and applied to massive databases, the resulting implications will have a far-reaching effect on most aspects of daily life. They will affect security, medicine, transportation, automation, retail, sales, industry, customer service and in fact nearly every activity that is relevant to modern life. In regards to the cyber industry, understanding these implications requires command not just of the “natural” technological disciplines – like computer science, mathematics, and engineering – but also of the social, legal, business and even philosophical aspects.
These considerations led the Prime Minister of Israel in June 20 to appoint Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel and Prof. Eviatar Matania to lead a team for the formulation of a national plan for strengthening national security and the scientific-technological capabilities of the State of Israel. The vision and objective were sharply defined:
Empowering Israel as a scientific-technological AI power from an economic and social perspective, while ensuring the future and national strength of the State of Israel as a secure, open, democratic and knowledge-based society.
To position Israel as one of the top five countries in the world in the core technological AI fields within the next five years.
The task force started working immediately, including some 300 men and women, that were divided to 15 sub-teams, according to the following three orthogonal axes:
- Technology Axis
- Application Axis (use cases)
- Government Axis
The following chart describe the task force sub-teams.
Article by: Maj. Gen. (ret.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel is the Head of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Studies Center at Tel-Aviv University
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