Artificial Intelligence: Catching Dust Bunnies and Saving Lives
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Artificial Intelligence: Catching Dust Bunnies and Saving Lives

If you own a Roomba, a robotic vacuum that scurries around on its own and empties its own bin, or you rely on Gmail’s “smart reply” options to do your bidding — “sorry, maybe another time”— then you’re familiar with the power of artificial intelligence (AI). Intelligent robots have the potential of making our lives easier by taking charge of tasks that are dull, dirty and dangerous. But did you also know that AI can save lives?

The Technion–Israel institute of Technology is already developing life-saving AI technologies. Now they’re taking that commitment a step further.

Intel, which recently completed the largest-ever acquisition for Israel with the $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye, a leader in autonomous driving, is collaborating with the Technion to create a research center for artificial intelligence and machine learning. The new center harnesses the Technion’s computer science, electrical engineering and industrial engineering expertise, and connects academia with high-tech industry. It’s a win-win, as industry needs cutting-edge research to stay competitive and academia needs a foothold in the real world to stay relevant.

Prof. Shie Mannor was recently awarded the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s “Best Essay” award. The prize was shared with former doctoral student Dr. Gal Dalal and current Technion doctoral student Yonatan Efroni.

“We’re on the verge of a revolution in engineering,” said Professor Shie Mannor of the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering and director of the new center. The Technion now has about 60 faculty working in computational learning and related fields, with the aim of developing applications for health and medicine, smart environments, defense, agritech, fintech and autonomous vehicles. Its Intel collaboration is one of the first steps in a broader initiative to expand AI activities.


The idea to boost AI research had been percolating when a collaboration between Professor Daniel Soudry and Intel’s Dr. Ron Banner succeeded in designing AI neural networks that work faster while using less energy and less memory. Dubbed “the new electricity,” neural networks are machine learning algorithms that process complex data inputs in a hierarchical manner, and are key to much of AI’s success.

The Technion and Intel have ties dating back to 1974 when Intel established a branch in Haifa. So a more formal collaboration made sense. Under the new arrangement, Intel can send employees to the Technion for Ph.D. research, and the Technion can continue to advance the work begun by Prof. Soudry and Dr. Banner while launching new projects.

“I’m very excited,” said Prof. Soudry. “Our results can be immediately tested and used on a large scale, helping us understand which future goals are most important to pursue.” Dr. Banner agrees. “We were able to solve problems crucial to the success of our products, which would be hard to work through on our own.”

What’s All the Buzz About Artificial Intelligence?

One can hardly peruse the news without coming across a major story on AI. Nearly half of the 6,000 startups in Israel work in areas related to AI. And these startups attracted a record $1.9 billion in investments in 2019, outpacing even life science startups.

What exactly is AI? Simply put, AI is the ability of computers to perform tasks associated with human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition and decision-making. Machine learning, a subset of AI, provides systems the ability to automatically learn from experience without being explicitly programmed.

The buzz is real, and the Technion is eager to be a part of it. Its Intel work is only the latest of a host of AI technologies underway.

  • Professor Uri Shalit is developing AI technology that will enable physicians to recommend tailor-made treatment plans for acute heart failure patients. Some patients respond well to a particular treatment, but that same treatment can put others into kidney failure. “Doctors don’t know what works for whom,” he said. He is also testing the technology on patients with type 2 diabetes.
  • Attention is often focused on aggressive cybersecurity attacks where the damage is immediately detected. Technion AI researchers are investigating passive attacks that can go unnoticed until they become cyber epidemics that can disrupt vital energy grids or transportation systems.
  • Britain’s biggest airports were recently shut down due to drone sightings, but dangerous situations like this may be avoided in the future. Technion researchers are working with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop methods of tracking drones in the air space, a tricky challenge when they fly one on top of the other.

Some fear that AI robots will one day nefariously control our world. Prof. Mannor dismisses such concerns. “The technology itself is neutral. It can be used for better or worse,” he said, ticking off applications that range from the practical — allowing shoppers to skip the checkout line — to the extraordinary. “The concept of dying in car crashes is going to seem medieval,” he said, explaining that when perfected, self-driving cars will be much safer than human drivers. “AI will save many lives.”

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