Thursday was our second day of visiting high-tech companies and Technion labs. I am writing this blog post about our Thursday adventures at a table on top of the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra, at the northernmost point of Israel that lies on the Mediterranean. It is a fitting place to write this reflection, because its white cliffs were one of the first landmarks pointed out to the MIT delegation as we looked northward along the shoreline from Haifa, Boston’s sister-city, home of the Technion.
The following written snapshots are reconstructed from my memories:
In order to demonstrate the inner workings of the air filtration system keeping the Technion’s clean room clear of dust particles, the tall technician, serving as our tour guide, led us into a room containing motors/fans the size of small cars and walled by air filters.
“The difference in air pressure drives the air through these filters before it recirculates!” he explained, right before he thrust open a hatch in the wall. Air rushed at us with such force that I had to crouch a little and lean into the hurricane-like gust to keep my balance. Marissa took a photo as we laughed into the wind.
Vision & Robotics Lab
After walking around the clean rooms and their air filtration systems, we were invited into a vision and robotics lab, complete with motion sensors and a humanoid robotic face. As we sat down, the cumulative effects of jet lag and sleep deprivation began to kick in for all of us, and my new friend Laura (MIT delegation) and I elbowed and poked each other occasionally, to keep us from losing consciousness. The technical presentations were quite detailed, and in my field of expertise, so I tried to ask particularly good questions!
Before lunch, we hopped over to a nearby suburban area full of malls and high-tech companies, like Elbit and Intel.
Elbit is a defense contractor that works on drone technology and augmented helmets for fighter pilots. After taking our IDs and cellphones, we were ushered into a large conference room for a presentation about their fleet of drones. Their smallest drones weren’t much larger than those I used to work on at MIT, in the Robot Locomotion Group.
When they showed us footage of their deep stall maneuver for dropping drones safely out of the sky and back down to the ground near the operator, my jaw dropped a little. My old research group had been working on deep stall maneuvers for years, too, with great success, but only on experimental platforms, as is customary in academic research. Elbit’s deep stall halting maneuver was not intended to have the same landing location accuracy as ours at MIT, but it was working in the field! I’d never seen that before.
Of course, given the ongoing conversation in the United States right now about the role of drone strikes by American armed forces on foreign soil, someone had to ask Elbit’s representative if the payloads included weapons. The representative told us that Elbit only made payloads filled with cameras, capable of surveillance. There are limits on who Elbit can sell too, but once the drones are sold, the owners can use them however they want.
The video footage demonstrating the drone’s impressive capabilities for persistent surveillance of individual cars, etc., also brought forth thoughts of current conversations in the States about what limits should be put on our government’s ability to peek into citizen’s lives. What is the right balance between security and privacy for the United States? For Israel? For any other country? Curious, I asked if Elbit worked with members of the Knesset on legislation that would address the privacy concerns prompted by their company’s advancement of drone surveillance technology. They don’t; it is beyond the scope of their enterprise. Also, it occurred to me that maybe the Israeli public relates to the privacy/security debate quite differently than citizens of the US.
Israeli Cell Phones: Mission Impossible?
After lunch, I went on a brief excursion with Elisha, Tal, and David to get cell phones from an inexpensive Israeli provider at a nearby mall. We then ran back to our next tech company, Intel, weaving through pedestrians and the occasional car, while Tal sang bits of Mission Impossible. Amazingly, we were only two minutes late, huffing and slightly damp. The punctual Intel employee took us inside immediately.
In a football field-sized room, we walked amongst row after row of Intel processors on oversized boards with every possible port attached to auxiliary devices. Electrical umbilical cords from servers lower in the building brought up sequences of instructions, algorithmically generated, hour after hour, in order to expose as many bugs as possible.
“How do you know when all the bugs are gone?” our young Israeli Intel host asked us. After we suggested a few methods, he confirmed that… we never really know for sure, but there are testing schemes that help Intel feel confident that most of the bugs are gone.
I smiled, recalling my experiences helping students debug their own processors in MIT’s undergraduate introduction to computer architecture. Every time we found and fixed a bug, we’d re-run the suite of tests and cross our fingers, perhaps even daring to say out loud, “I think that might have been the laaaaaast bug!”
I guess Intel isn’t that different.
Our evening on the beach passed in a flash for me. Apparently, there were games, footballs being thrown, and frisbees, but I was having too much fun talking with a few other Technion students about philosophy and religion until dark.
-Elena Glassman ’08, MNG ’10, G
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