Winch 5

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Israel is a Computer-Science Empire

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When Scientific American recently wrote about the progress in artificial intelligence, it profiled two IBM supercomputers: Deep Blue, which defeated the world champion Gary Kasparov in chess, and the Jeopardy-winning Watson. The other company it profiled is the little-known Mobileye, an Israeli firm whose strength lies in EyeQ, a chip with a dimension of only one square centimeter. While tiny, its algorithm can interpret everything that a camera fixed on a car sees, in real-time, in order to prevent accidents or reduce the force of impact.


To see how it works, I took a drive with engineer Ofir Atia. Even though it's part of the test, we didn't run over pedestrians (the test pedestrians are dummies). I watched as the camera located vehicles, and EyeQ calculated the relative speed of the closest – warning us with a loud beep when we got too close. It brakes automatically (braking hard if it has to), unless the driver turns the wheel. It also detects pedestrians on the side of the road, braking automatically when they cross to avoid an accident or, if the car's going too fast, to minimize impact.

Unlike human drivers, the system is capable of doing several tasks at once, reading road signs and indicating speed limits. It warns drivers when they change lanes without using their indicators, and changes headlight settings depending on the night-time traffic situation.

The camera "sees everything." The chip analyzes what the camera sees, giving orders to its computer, which then sends warnings, secures seat belts, or applies the brakes. All of this builds towards what specialists call "autonomous driving," when the car no longer needs us. The company's co-founder, Amnon Shashua, is professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since the time he started the company in 1999, he has believed it will some day be possible to ensure car safety with only one camera, "for the same reason that when you close one eye you don't become blind," he says. It used to be thought that two cameras would be required, which would be much more expensive.

Mobileye's technology is already being used in certain GM, Volvo and BMW models, and will soon be offered as an option by Citroën, Honda and others. By September, a total of one million cars will be equipped with the service.

Shashua also counts on American and European authorities, who are both pushing for the adoption of driving-assistance devices. At US$150, the device is closing in on the magic number – US$100 – for auto manufacturers to consider using it.

Mobileye was recently selected for an exhibition of the 45 most important Israeli Inventions. Yet, Shashua says, "I've known since 1999 that the algorithm could be developed, but not in a university setting." So he created a company to raise the funds to do so, with the help of Yissum, the Hebrew University's investment fund. The company is approaching a billion-dollar valuation, according to Ynetnews.

Shashua is convinced that, outside of Silicon Valley, Israel is the only other place where Innovation is really happening. "It's in our DNA as a nation," he says. "Unlike what you see in Europe or India, we have the most advanced algorithms. Israel is a computer-science empire."

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