Israel’s AI boom takes the stage at Beijing tech conference

Chamber of commerce head sells Israel as hub at opening of AI forum, with numbers showing Jewish state quickly becoming a leader in the industry

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

The Zhonggcuancun tech hub during the opening event of the AI Industry Application and Development Forum, on May 29, 2019 (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)
The Zhonggcuancun tech hub during the opening event of the AI Industry Application and Development Forum, on May 29, 2019 (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

ZHONGGUANCUN, China — The robots are coming, and when they do, they may speak a blend of Chinese, English and, surprisingly, Hebrew.

Members of Israel’s business community in China took part in a large conference heralding advances in artificial intelligence near Beijing last week, underlining Israel’s growing strength as a hub for the field.

The opening of the Zhongguancun AI Industry Application and Development Forum, backed by Beijing’s local government, featured everything from dancing robots grooving to Chinese pop music to representatives of firms on the bleeding edge of advances in machine learning that critics say could raise serious privacy concerns.

The event was held in Zhongguancun, a massive technology park — more of a city, really — on the northern outskirts of Beijing that has become a jewel in China’s attempts to evolve from a manufacturing powerhouse into a hub for innovation.

The area of Zhongguancun seen from Beijing’s Summer Palace, on June 2, 2019 (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

The area, which grew up around Peking, Renmin and Tsinghua universities, has drawn comparisons to Silicon Valley, and is home to headquarters for many of China’s biggest tech firms as well as local offices for US tech behemoths such as IBM and Google.

Most of the companies at the forum were Chinese, including Didi (China’s Uber), Alibaba cloud computing unit Aliyun, and SenseTime, which has come under scrutiny for privacy concerns raised by its facial recognition technology. But also showing off their high-tech wares were a smattering of firms from the US and Israel.

Ariel Briskin, manager of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in China, also known as IsCham, told the crowd that Israel was the world’s leading high-tech and innovation center, pumping up the country as having the highest number of new entrepreneurs annually per capita and the most Nobel Prize winners per capita, with the AI field in particular growing strongly.

Ariel Briskin, left, speaks to a Chinese military oral surgeon about bringing Israeli technology to his field (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

“When it comes to AI, this is only the start,” Briskin said later.

Two Israeli firms had booths at the confab: Gauzy, a materials science firm which develops smart glass, and Rehovot-based Stratasys, which has pioneered developments in 3-D printing.

A representative of a third Israeli firm, which asked not be identified or described because it is still in early-stage development, also attended the conference.

A March study by Start-up Nation Central found that AI is increasingly becoming a major part of Israel’s tech scene, with 17 percent of all startups being involved in so-called “deep tech” fields as of the end of 2018.

“Israel is home to a vibrant AI ecosystem that grew from 512 companies in 2014 to 1,150 by the end of 2018,” wrote the nonprofit, which tracks trends in Israel’s high-tech ecosystem.

Chinese investors, some of whom have been locked out of the US by trade tensions and other issues, have shown interest in Israel’s entry into the field. In July, Boyu Capital, one of China’s largest investment firms, led a $125 million funding round for Trax Image Recognition, which uses computer vision technology to help retailers and others keep shelves stocked.

An area where AI firms showed off their wares at the Zhongguancun AI Industry Application and Development Forum, on May 29, 2019 (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

At a separate conference for Chinese investment in Israeli companies held a day earlier in the province of Shandong, south of Beijing, a number of Chinese officials mentioned Israeli artificial intelligence as a field they were interested in pumping money into.

But some Israeli firms have shied away from Chinese investment because of demands that the technology be transferred or a joint venture set up, leading to concerns about protecting intellectual property rights.

Artificial intelligence as well could present its own issues as it has been increasingly seen as a potential dual-use technology that could have military applications — which could make it harder for firms with Chinese investors or joint ventures to operate in the West.

“On the one hand, Chinese money seems to be available, but it comes with a lot of strings attached. And these days, those strings are being watched very carefully by the Americans,” said an industry observer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Likai Li, a managing partner of Enno Capital who attended the conference, defended China’s fondness for joint ventures as a way of allowing Israeli companies to protect their intellectual property rights by ensuring that both sides had a stake.

“I don’t think Israeli companies in China have problems. The investors don’t just invest in you, but they count on you,” he said from the forum.

Likai Li (YouTube screenshot)

Likai sits on the board of Ness Zion-based NewSight Imaging, which makes image sensor chips for self-driving cars, robots, video games and other devices, and which has offices near Shanghai. He said Israelis seemed more concerned about protecting their intellectual property than others, but dismissed the concerns.

“I’m the 20% shareholder. Why would I want to steal from you? I [would] steal [from] myself,” he said.

While declining to speak about tensions with the US, Briskin said that at the end of the day, ignoring China was not an option.

“You have to work with China. It’s a strategic interest. China will be there for a very long time. You have to work smart. But you have to work with it,” he said. “If you don’t find China, China will find you.”

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