There’s a famous legend about the inventor of the game of chess. He was asked by the ruler of his country to name a reward for his contribution to society. The inventor asked the ruler to place one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, two grains of rice on the second, four on the third, and to keep doubling the number of grains until he reached the 64th square.
What the ruler soon realized is that the numbers become unimaginably large around the 32nd square. And that to fill the inventor’s request for all 64 squares he would ultimately need more rice than all of China produces in a thousand years.
This story is commonly cited by futurists to illustrate the awesome power of exponential growth. Exponential, as opposed to linear, growth is what Mooly Eden, Intel Israel’s former senior vice president — who left his post last March — wants to talk about most. Eden currently spends two days a week advising Bank Hapoalim on how to transform itself for the digital age, and the rest of his time serving on the boards of start-ups as well as working with Israel’s Education Ministry to double the number of high school students taking advanced STEM courses.
Eden, who resembles an Israeli version of playwright David Mamet in both his dress and his outspoken, no-nonsense manner, spoke to The Times of Israel at his office overlooking Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.
Computing power has been doubling every 18 months to two years since about 1960, a phenomenon commonly referred to as Moore’s Law. According to Eden, this means that “the fact that technology is advancing at a crazy speed is becoming more and more evident. We’re taking the fiction out of science fiction and making it science.”
In fact, if you’re looking for a unified theory to explain the major problems facing Israel and the world — the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and growing socioeconomic inequality — they can all be traced to the exponential advance of technology, in Eden’s view.
“What many people don’t realize or don’t see is that this exponential pace is influencing everything. If you look at the economy, crises are happening [more frequently than in the past]. If you look at the Arab Spring, somebody was killed in Tunisia. Many people have been killed in Tunisia before. But with Twitter or with Facebook, suddenly you’ve got a revolution.”
Eden says that when it comes to employment, bank tellers, cashiers and cab drivers will very soon be replaced by computers, generating large waves of unemployment.
“I believe it will be irresponsible to drive a car, because the computer will drive it much better than you. It is not tired, it can see 360 degrees, and it can see in the dark and all kinds of weather.”
Eden says Israel needs to take action quickly, “because in an exponential world, self-driving cars will not take 50 years to spread like the Ford car that replaced horses. What used to take 50 years will take three or five.”
When it comes to exponential growth, Eden knows of what he speaks. Moore’s law, which was put forward by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore in a 1965 paper, states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. As the leader of the group that developed several Intel processors — including Pentium and Centrino — Eden is one of the actual individuals responsible for the computing revolution that has powered everything from Google to Twitter to self-driving cars.
Last month, Eden spoke at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Forum in Washington, DC.
“I was on a panel and I said, you know what? Technology is growing exponentially. I said, ‘I have been coming here for three years, listening to Israeli and American politicians and I didn’t hear anything I didn’t hear two or three years ago. Our world is advancing exponentially but the thoughts of the politicians are linear. Look at ISIS, they’re better recruiters than Intel. They’re using your websites and your technology for their PR. Why don’t you use technology to slow them down? Because it’s crazy, the technology is ours.”
Eden says he was gratified to hear Hillary Clinton get up the next day for her keynote address and echo his comments.
“We’re seeing the results of radicalization,” she said, “not just in far-off lands, but right here at home fueled by the Internet. It’s the nexus of terrorism and technology. We should work with host companies to shut them down. It’s time for an urgent dialogue between government and the high-tech community, I heard from some of you that you had a great session about technology yesterday and about how politics and society kind of go on in a linear way even if it’s an upward movement, but how technology is a disruptive force that leads to a real exponential increase in activity, and I think one of the experts on the panel said, ‘ISIS is an exponential force right now.’ Unfortunately, I agree with that.’”
How can technology be used to stop terror attacks?
“Very simple,” says Eden. “I can filter [the messages], I can track where they’re coming from, I can carry out cyber-attacks, many things.”
The same applies to the current wave of stabbing attacks in Israel, says Eden.
“If you ask me if there is technology to identify [inciteful material] and erase it, my belief is yes, we can erase such things. But we have to be careful. Where is the borderline to make sure that, on one hand, we have freedom of speech and, on the other, we don’t let terrorists abuse our freedom? Tomorrow someone will say some leftists are putting up an article, let’s filter them. There are countries in the world that do block the Internet, that practice censorship.
In an age when Facebook and Google can target ads so precisely that they know who is pregnant or who has a hankering for cappuccino, can’t technologists tell who is likely to commit a stabbing?
“Yes, you can use an artificial learning system. The way to do it is to take 50, 60 or 70 suicide bombers, track all the mail they wrote before the attack see if there is something in common, let the system learn the pattern, ask is there any new pattern that correlates with it. The question is, you saw what happened with the NSA? How willing are you for them to invade your privacy? Do you want Big Brother reading all your email? Technology can do it, but what is the ethical and legal boundary?”
On the other hand, says Eden, privacy is already “bullshit.”
“We don’t have it. Look at [Nashat Milhelm, the terrorist] who killed people on Dizengoff Street. It took less than a day to discover his identity using all this footage from security cameras. If I tried to find out where you’ve been in the last 24 hours, probably 50 percent of the time that you’re not sleeping you’re on the footage of some camera.”
But what if this is a price we’re willing to pay to be safer?
“By sacrificing more privacy, can we increase security? I believe yes. I believe if the terror continues to rise, probably people will be willing to sacrifice a little more privacy in exchange for a bit more security.”
What happened to the dream that the Internet is making the world smaller, that the Facebook generation is more open and tolerant than their predecessors?
“The world is getting smaller for you and the terrorists. I am a bit more pessimistic about human nature. Do you know what the difference is between an optimist and a pessimist? Both are totally unrealistic, but optimists lead better lives.”