Sunday, May 16, 2010

Crucibles

Via Instapundit, and the newly-bookmarked, likely to be frequently-visited H+ Magazine, I encountered this fascinating article on the role of Israel in the formation of our technological civilization, and in its future development. It begins thusly:
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.
 The tiny nation of Israel has had a disproportionately huge impact on the states of an astonishing variety of extremely cutting-edge technologies practically since its inception. It is still the world standard on water treatment (its drip irrigation techniques were revolutionary, and allowed it to make the desert bloom in a way which would have made Frank Herbert's mouth...well...). Its contributions to renewable energy technologies, robotics, medical tech, and a host of other highly advanced fields of knowledge have made this nation, though smaller than New Jersey, into a little laboratory for the future. Consider these 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.
 Long ago, I read a short story by Theodore Sturgeon, called A Microcosmic God, in which a scientist creates a species of tiny, intelligent, short-lived organisms, and presents them with problems which they must solve, often for the sake of their own survival (for example, he introduces a mechanism which will crush them unless they come up with an impenetrable force field...so they do. After all, they see him as a kind of God figure). In the conclusion of his H+ article, author Hank Hyena links the embattled state of Israel to other fast-growing, innovative societies of the past, stating that:
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.
 A central tenet of evolutionary dynamics (at various scales, including genetic algorithms within computers) is the importance of selective pressures to guide the process of blind variation and selective retention which makes evolution such an immensely powerful problem-solving engine. Given such pressures, evolving systems sample the problem space in massively parallel fashion, trying and discarding myriad potential solutions before zeroing in on the one which is nearest-to-optimal.

In the case of Israel, one would be hard-pressed to envision a more demanding problem space in which to sink or swim. Of course, adversity does not invariably lead to brilliance, and the author cites some other factors (e.g., an early influx of highly-educated immigrants from Russia and Europe) which have propelled Israel to its current prominence in the advancement of human civilization. But the fact is that Israel has had to innovate at a breakneck pace in order to preserve its very existence. Operating under relentless existential threats, and with very few allies (at least initially: the US was not a significant supporter till after 1973 or so), the nation of Israel has functioned as a sort of crucible for the emergence of novel approaches to a wide variety of problems.

Say what you will about the primordial standoff between Israel and its neighbors. But this is an indispensable nation with untolled gifts for the future of humanity. Amid all the hue and cry, it is useful to remember this from time to time.

Please do read the whole thing.

3 comments:

Mike said...

You're assuming here that we would have seen fewer contributions from my tribe had they not been placed in this particular situation. This is a completely unwarranted assumption, especially since we were the most productive tribe on Earth long before the formation of Israel.

It has been said of my tribe (and I basically agree) that we are like maneur. Spread us around judiciously, and we make things grow wherever we are. Put us all in one place, and it's just a pile of shit (which, incidentally, goes a long way toward explaining some of the technologies on that list, such as Windows NT and AIM :D ).

Hank said...

Thanks for the Link, Noocyte -- this is Hank Hyena, the author of the Israel article. I appreciate your support and I learned a lot from your own analysis

Noocyte said...

Thanks for stopping by, Hank! Glad you found something useful.

And Mike: Since, as it turns out, we can't re-run history with different parameters, your statement is unfalsifiable. Same goes, I suppose, for Hank's and mine. Main difference, I guess, is that the latter formulations are in synch with a model whereby your historically productive and inventive Tribe has crossed an important threshold of productivity and genius at least in part by virtue of the historical, geographical, and political conditions which pertain in Israel as they really haven't before.

After all, amino acids are terribly useful things for biology, but spread 'em around in a dilute enough solution (or -- better for the example-- suspension), without enough energy, and they're merely interesting chemicals. Pack 'em together in the right ways, under the right conditions, and things start to get really lively.

I think there is something special about the placement of these people in this place on Earth, at this time, surrounded by...Oy! such neighbors...something which is distinct from what came before. It's kinda like turning a clunky old Fermi fission pile into a fast-breeder reactor.

When it comes to Windows NT, though, I'm with you.