Israel will have ‘huge role’ to play in AI revolution, OpenAI’s Sam Altman says

Visiting co-founder of Microsoft-backed OpenAI says firm is examining various investment options in Israel; meets with President Herzog, speaks to high-tech leaders and students

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

OpenAI co-founders Sam Altman (center) and Ilya Sutskever (right) on a panel at Tel Aviv University, June 5, 2023. (Chen Galili)
OpenAI co-founders Sam Altman (center) and Ilya Sutskever (right) on a panel at Tel Aviv University, June 5, 2023. (Chen Galili)

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said Monday that he is impressed with the talent pool in Israel and expressed his confidence that the local tech ecosystem will play a “huge role” in the artificial intelligence revolution transforming the world in the coming years.

“There are two things I have observed that are particular about Israel: the first is talent density and the second is the relentlessness, drive, and ambition of Israeli entrepreneurs,” Altman said at an event at Tel Aviv University. “Those two things together are optimal to lead to incredible prosperity both in terms of AI research and AI applications.”

Altman arrived in Israel this week as part of a worldwide tour to meet with AI users and developers as well as policymakers. At Tel Aviv University, Altman and Ilya Sutskever, the creators behind ChatGPT — the viral chatbot released late last year that mimics human writing — were hosted by Dr. Nadav Cohen from TAU’s School of Computer Science.

ChatGPT is a tool that is based on a so-called large language model trained with text data to answer questions, or prompts, as a human would.

Altman and Sutskever discussed the threats and challenges that AI and superintelligence will bring in the future and answered questions from students, data scientists, AI developers, and high-tech professionals.

With support of tech billionaire Elon Musk, Altman set up OpenAI in 2015 as a research and development lab with a mission to ensure that artificial intelligence benefits all of humanity. Altman founded the AI lab together with Sutskever who also serves as the chief scientist at OpenAI. Russian-born Sutskever grew up in Israel and moved to Canada with his family at the age of 16.

The two high-tech pioneers encouraged Israeli developers and entrepreneurs to delve into the unchartered territory of AI, which they predict has a huge number of opportunities and positive applications.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (left) talks with Microsoft Israel Research and Development head Michal Braverman-Blumenstick, June 5, 2023. (Amir Barkol)

“I will just say go for it, just do it,” Sutskever enthused.

At the same time, both Altman and Sutskever emphasized the need to take the existential threats of AI seriously by creating a frontier regulatory body, similar to nuclear power control bodies, in an effort to limit it and use it responsibly. With the swift development of AI models and its rapid use, lawmakers around the world are contemplating regulation of the technology and how to deal with safety issues and other potential dangers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced plans for a national AI policy in both the civilian and the security spheres. Netanyahu said he spoke Sunday night with Tesla’s Musk about the need for governments to understand both the opportunities and the dangers of AI and about Israel turning into a “significant global player in the field.”

“We are at the dawn of a new era for humanity, an era of artificial intelligence,” Netanyahu said. “Things are changing at a dizzying pace and Israel must formulate a national policy on this issue.”

Netanyahu said that during a phone conversation with Altman, the tech entrepreneur also expressed confidence that Israel could become a “main global player in the field.” During the conversation, the two discussed “opportunities and challenges facing the world and the State of Israel in connection to AI,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Part of the conversation also focused on cooperation in the field of AI development.

Altman is not planning to meet Netanyahu in person on the AI celebrity’s frenetic trip to Israel. Netanyahu’s and Altman’s offices denied a formal request having been made from the Prime Minister’s Office, amid reports that Altman eschewed a personal meeting.

Israel President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, June 5, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Earlier on Monday, Altman met with President Isaac Herzog, together with Sutskever, who also serves as OpenAI’s chief scientist; its COO, Brad Lightcap; and its VP of Public Policy, Anna Makanju. After that, Altman visited Microsoft’s research and development center in Israel. The US tech giant has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI.

Altman told Herzog that his visit to Israel is “very special” to him.

“The rate at which the tech and startup community in Israel is embracing AI is incredible to watch,” Altman said. “The energy on making use of the technology and its positive benefits is fantastic to see, and I am sure Israel will play a huge role – it’s tech community is truly amazing.”

The two discussed the risks and benefits of AI and the fast pace the technology is developing. Herzog uttered his personal interest in leading a discussion within Israel and worldwide on the ethics and morality, and other aspects of AI technology.

“Clearly side by side with the great opportunities of this incredible technology, there are also many risks to humanity and to the independence of human beings in the future,” Herzog remarked. “Medicine will be dramatically improved by AI, however, issues of ethics, and morality, questions of fake news, show the risks.”

During the visit at Microsoft Israel’s R&D center, Altman met with its general manager Michal Braverman-Blumenstyk as well as with employees.

“The advancements made by OpenAI are driving unparalleled human progress, comparable to the impact of the Internet revolution,” commented Braverman-Blumenstyk. “I was truly impressed by Sam’s dedication to promoting the responsible use of artificial intelligence for positive change.”

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it was backing OpenAI and in recent weeks as the US tech giant plans to bring AI to the masses, it has started to make upgrades to its systems and applications by integrating ChatGPT features into its products, including the Teams platform, and the Bing search engine. It is also expected to adapt the app to its Office suite.

“By integrating OpenAI technologies into Microsoft products, we position ourselves at the forefront of the global technology landscape,” said Braverman-Blumenstyk.

In response to a question at the Microsoft R&D center regarding the feasibility of opening an OpenAI local branch in Israel, Altman said that the company prefers to work together and in one location, but that it is examining different options for investing in Israel.

Microsoft currently operates a number of development centers in Israel including in Herzliya, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth. The tech giant employs more than 2,000 people in Israel, working mostly in R&D, on projects including cybersecurity, AI technologies, big data, and healthcare.

Following the blitz visit to Israel on Monday, Altman is scheduled to travel to Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, India, and South Korea this week.

As part of the OpenAI world tour started in early May, the Jewish-born tech founder already visited Toronto, Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Lisbon. Altman also met with entrepreneurs, heads of state, and policymakers in Madrid, Warsaw, Paris, London, and Munich.

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