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Israel’s Netanyahu calls Elon Musk, Sam Altman, pledges national AI strategy

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is currently visiting Israel where he met with President Isaac Herzog but only held a phone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sam Altman, US entrepreneur, investor, programmer, and founder and CEO of artificial intelligence company OpenAI, speaks at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Monday to develop a national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy after speaking to Twitter and SpaceX owner Elon Musk as well as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman who is visiting Israel.

In a series of tweets via his official Twitter account, Netanyahu said he spoke with Musk about the "possibilities and the dangers posed by AI" and how Israel can become a "significant factor in the field."

Netanyahu also said he spoke to Altman about AI. He pledged to convene teams "in the coming days" to discuss a national AI strategy for both civil and security purposes.

"The same way we turned Israel into a cyber powerhouse, this is what we will do with AI," said Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu's statement came during Altman’s visit to Israel. The two did not meet in person. OpenAI is a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence firm known for developing the ChatGPT chatbot. Musk is a co-founder of the company.

Netanyahu and Altman discussed potential cooperation in a phone call on Monday, according to a readout from Netanyahu’s office. 

Altman, however, met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and other Israeli officials. 



Altman and other OpenAI executives also met Israeli Education Minister Yoav Kisch, according to Israeli media. Altman and crew also visited Microsoft's research and development center, according to Reuters.

The fact that Altman met Herzog but only held a call with Netanyahu received considerable attention in Israeli media. Netanyahu's office told Israel Hayom that there had not been any official request for a meeting. Earlier, the outlet had reported that Altman did not meet with Netanyahu because the tech executive did not want to engage in Israeli domestic politics in light of the judicial reform controversy. 

OpenAI spokespeople said they did not receive a request for a meeting from Netanyahu, according to The Times of Israel. OpenAI did not immediately respond to Al-Monitor's request for comment. 

Altman also gave a talk at Tel Aviv University on Monday.

“The two things I’ve observed that are particularly special about Israel — No. 1 is the talent density. This is a smallish country that punches well above its weight,” said Altman at the university. "The second is the relentlessness, drive, ambition level of Israeli entrepreneurs.”

Altman tweeted on Sunday that he would visit Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, India and South Korea during the week.

Musk did not appear to immediately confirm the discussion with Netanyahu.

Why it matters: AI is a hot topic throughout the world due to its potential benefits and dangers to humanity. The technology offers opportunities for automation in a variety of sectors but also comes with privacy, economic, misinformation and other risks.

For the Middle East specifically, AI models like ChatGPT have a large water footprint and could worsen water scarcity issues in the region, Salim Essaid reported for Al-Monitor in April.

In March, Musk notably called for a pause on AI, citing “risks to society.”

Netanyahu’s tweet further demonstrates Musk’s influence in the Middle East. The billionaire also has a longstanding relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two met most recently in late 2021, and SpaceX launched a Turkish satellite into orbit shortly thereafter.

Altman’s travel to the Gulf is further notable. Both Qatar and the UAE already have national AI strategies and are interested in developing the technology as they seek to diversify away from oil and gas.

Know more: AI could help spur diversification efforts in the Middle East, but many of the Gulf's AI goals in this matter have yet to materialize, Jaime Moore-Carillo wrote in an Al-Monitor PRO Trend Report in March.

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