Imagine this sci-fi scenario: A small tribe with unique literature, customs and myths believes they’ve been “chosen” for a glorious destiny. But they’re driven out of their native land, forced to wander the globe for aeons, persecuted and annihilated, until they’re impelled by a utopian novel to return to their homeland. They name their new city after the inspirational book and their country becomes a technological powerhouse… but still, they’re surrounded by enemies. They wage eternal war, they hover between hope and apocalypse”¦ their contributions to humanity are astounding but they continue to fear total extinction. Familiar? Of course. I’ve described Israel and the Jews.
A four-millennium saga with floods, burning bushes, diasporas, miracles, massacres, temples, pogroms, holocausts, and 180+ brainy Jews receiving Nobel Prizes - 22% of the total awards garnered by only .25% of the population. Today’s Israel - a dynamic nano-nation tinier than New Jersey in size and numbers - is imagination made concrete, the material manifestation of Theodor Herzl’s futuristic, Zion-inspiring 1902 book Altneuland (translated as “The Old New Land” in English, and “Tel Aviv” in the Hebrew translation by Nalum Sokolov.)
Is Israel valuable to Transhumanism? Yes. Even though most Israelis worry about surviving next week and regard contemplation of the year 2025 as impractical because they might be “pushed into the sea” by then. Yes. Even though membership in the Israeli Humanity Plus chapter is only 50-100 with twenty regular attendees. Yes, Israel is a crucial player in H+ and here’s why:
In 1998 Newsweek named Tel Aviv as one of the Top Ten technologically influential cities in the world.Wired and The Economist rated Israel’s high tech region second only to Silicon Valley. “Silicon Wadi” - an area half the size of its California sibling - has over 3,850 startups with 120 companies on NASDAQ, the largest number outside the USA. Israel’s tech success is aided by low-rate government loans for development - Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Donald Trump and numerous global business surveys have all praised Israel’s economic environment. Another contributing factor: well-educated immigrants who arrived from the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, and abundant local grads from esteemed institutes such as Hebrew University, The Technion, Tel Aviv University and Weizman Institute of Science.
Consider this commendable data: The first cell phones were developed at the Israeli branch of Motorola. The majority of Windows NT and XP operating systems were developed by Microsoft Israel. Pentium MMX chip technology was designed at the Israeli Intel. Both the Pentium 4 and Centrino processors were designed by Israelis. Dov Moran, an Israeli, invented the flash disk. Voice mail technology? Israel. AOL Instant Messenger? Israel. Highest percentage of home computers in the world? Israel. Highest ratio of university degrees? Israel. Highest per capita number of scientists and technicians in the workplace? Israel. (145 per 10,000 - second is USA with 85). Techno-progressive President Shimon Peres recently declared, “the future is in nanotechnology.” Israeli universities advance research in cutting edge fields like cognitive neuroscience, cellomics, telomerase, etc. etc.
Petri Dish for Progress
On November 9, 2009, Ray Kurzweil was a guest at the Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu credited Kurzweil for inspiring his “Renewable Energy Initiative” that seeks to replace all fossil fuel with renewable resources - primarily solar - in the next ten years. Kurzweil discussed reverse-engineering the brain with President Peres. The American futurist also proposed using nanotech to solve energy and environmental issues, and he suggested building an entrepreneurial technology incubator that would be shared collaboratively by both Israelis and Palestinians. Kurzweil has the ears of open-minded Israeli leadership. Imagine the impact if (when) his ideas are successfully enacted. Israel’s small size and tech chutzpah make it an ideal laboratory for scientific progress.
Israel has on-going military needs and a small population (5.6 million Jews, 1.9 million Arabs). It has responded to this challenge by becoming a world leader in robotic weaponry. In 1981 it successfully utilized its first unmanned aircraft. Since then, it has added unmanned speedboats, unmanned ground vehicles, border guard robo-snipers, camouflaged robot snakes, and a nine-inch tall VIPeR ‘bot that climbs stairs, sniffs for explosives, disarms bombs with water spray, heaves grenades, and shoots hostiles with a mini Uzi submachine gun. Israel’s goal is to robotize one-third of its military machinery in the next 10-15 years. There’s also been non-violent success. Israeli scientists co-developed (with Europeans) the “SmartHand” (a robotic prosthetic hand), and they’ve recently invented a bionic retina implant, “Bio Retina.”
Artificial Intelligence: Michael Vassar of SIAI (Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence) notified me via email that “the main Israelis that pursued work vital to our core mission are Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky… and the computer scientist Judea Pearl for his development of Bayes Nets.” Kahneman (2002 Nobel Prize winner for his Prospect Theory) was born in Tel Aviv. Tversky was born in Haifa. Their collaboration on “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” is a seminal work in the Artificial Intelligence field. Singularity essays like Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks” are deeply indebted to the Israeli psychologists. Judea Pearl - computer scientist and philosopher - is also recognized as a giant in the field of artificial intelligence. He’s a pioneer in the probabilistic approach to AI and the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.
Stem Cell Research
Israel leads the world in stem cell research papers per capita. On April 9, 2010, scientists at Hadassah Hospital achieved a crucial breakthrough. They demonstrated a new technique that can mass produce huge quantities of fetal stem cells. Two members of the Israeli Humanity+ chapter are highly knowledgeable in stem cell research: bio-scientist Dr. Danny Belkin and bio-ethicist Dr. Frida Fuchs Simonstein.
Israel aims to be the first nation with a national electric car network - they hope to have it fully operational by late 2011 (edging out Denmark). Its engineers are also developing hydrogen fuel. Israelis are world leaders in desalination and wastewater renewal. On World Water Day (March 22), the United Nations lauded Israel as the planet’s most efficient recycled water user. Tel Aviv University scientists also recently (04/22/10) discovered that ultra-violet nanoscale wavelengths are superior to chlorine for cleaning tap water. Israelis have long been leaders in solar energy technology and they export their expertise around the world. One company just signed a deal to build solar energy farms in California and Nevada. Israel is also unique in the world because every year its population of trees increases.
Israel has been described as “the birthplace of science fiction.” For chariots in the sky, eco-cataclysms, invisible voices, and other paranormality, check out the Torah. Want a hero traveling through space, searching for the secrets of creation? Examine the apocryphal books of Enoch, circa 300 B.C. In contemporary Israel, “political science fiction” dominates the genre, with the vast majority of successful books using the homeland as a setting. A utopian-intended society tottering on the edge of annihilation is obviously ideal for SF. A partial list of important authors would include Pesakh Amnuel, David Avidan, Dan Zalka, Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Bloom, Gail Hareven, and Addy Zemach.
Mordechai Nessayahu’s “Cosmotism” depicts a future in which Israel saves humanity from eco-disasters and nuclear annihilation. Also influential as a Labor Party stalwart, Nessyahu motivated Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres to pursue the Oslo Accords peace plan. Shimon Peres published his own visions in “A New Beginning.” He imagines an improved Israel via peace and an information revolution. Equally optimistic is Yigal Arica’s “What’s in the Future?” Niv Ahituv’s “A World Without Secrets” presents a totally transparent world, where all information about everyone is available to everyone.
Tzvi Bisk - author of Futurizing the Jews (co-written with Moshe Dror) and The Optimistic Jew - predicts that Israel will become a model superpower. He says that it will be a “light unto nations,” with one of the world’s highest scientific, cultural, social and economic standards. He also envisions a cyber-Israel, connecting global communities to enlarge the “Jewish homeland.” Recent events have perhaps dampened Bisk’s positivity. In an email to me he remarked, “you may have noticed from media reports we in the Middle East have not yet gotten the humanist thing right yet, let alone the transhumanist thing.”
Young Bright Lights:
Ilia Stambler is a primary organizer of the nine transhumanist seminars in Israel. He’s a 38-year-old PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University, writing a dissertation on “The History of Life Extensionism in the 20th Century.” He’s also an intern at IEET (Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies). Stambler notified me via email that Israeli transhumanists are primarily focused on life extension, with the Singularity ranking second in interest. He also reports that “futuristic visions are often underplayed here in view of the more immediate concerns.”
Adi Berman is only 19 years old, but Aubrey de Grey has praised her as “exceptionally bright and intelligent.” A singer/songwriter with her tunes on MySpace, she’s a respected writer on Imminist.org forums. Her emails to me were pithy: “Israelis hope that Israel has a future.” Discussing radical life extension, she insists, “Life’s irrelevant if death overcomes us… it’s natural that we seek unlimited life spans, every organism tries to survive… each having a natural tool to help them: venom, speed, strength, camoflage, etc… we have a BRAIN, a highly developed one, that is our natural tool to survive….”
Defense & Friends:
Israel is a world leader in satellite technology, often used in spying on hostile neighbors. Israel also has nuclear weapons - an estimated 75-200 warheads. It’s got the fourth largest air force in the world and the most impenetrable flight security. Israel’s “best friend” is not the United States, it’s India - a close economic and military ally, and a collaborator on space research. Israel’s also (usually) cozy with China, Russia, Germany and Mexico.
In my opinion, Israel (like South Korea) will be a tiny giant in the world of the future. Both nations have risen triumphantly from near-nothingness in the last sixty years. Although Israel is miniscule and threatened by opposition, it has used this challenge as motivation for advancement. Israel’s diminutive size and gargantuan progress is reminiscent of the small vibrant city states of history, such as classical Athens (rivaled by Sparta, Thebes and Corinth), medieval Florence (opposed by Venice, Milan, Genoa, Pisa and Siena), the Warring States of China (forward leaps in philosophy, metallurgy, government, law and military strategy), Swahili seaports (Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa, Sofala, Zanzibar, and Mogadishu competed economically as their cosmopolitan cultures blossomed), plus myriad other mighty dwarfs that performed phenomenally under pressure.
I believe that Israel’s future will be as plucky as David with his technologically superior sling. All humanity can benefit from Israeli research and inventiveness as our planet progresses towards a metaphoric “land of milk and honey.”
Hank Pellissier, with special thanks to Ilia Stambler for his patient assistance.