Blogs & Comment

Does humanity need war to advance technologically?

With technological innovation so closely linked to conflict, will humanity stop advancing if it stops fighting?


(Photo: Nell Redmond/AP)

A few months ago, the Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs here in Toronto contacted me to ask if I would be interested in being part of a journalist delegation to Israel, to tour the country’s technology sector. I’ve had my eye on Israel for several years now, since working on my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and learning that much of the country’s economic success over the past few decades has been the result of a meshing between technology and the military. So of course I agreed.

A group of us are spending this week visiting tech schools, organizations, entrepreneurs and companies around Israel, from the research and development labs of large multinationals such as Intel and Motorola to smaller startups such as Mobli and Conduit.

The numbers on Israel’s technology sector are impressive. Israel has more venture capital investments per capita than any nation on earth, including the United States, and boasts the most non-U.S. companies listed on the Nasdaq after China. It’s ranked fourth in the world in scientific activity, in terms of scientific publications per million citizens, and has some of the highest levels of R&D investment globally. Indeed, Intel and Microsoft opened their first non-U.S. R&D centres in the country.

On the military side, Israel is third in the world in terms of per capita spending, behind only the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Looking to future tech, it is the second biggest spender on military robots, such as unmanned aerial and ground robots, after the United States.

Put it all together and it’s unsurprising that Israel has experienced an economic miracle over the past generation. Since 1985, its economy has grown 10-fold and continues to power ahead. China and India tend to get all the press for their economic stories, but Israel has performed just as strongly.

The explanation for the growth cuts to the heart of the link between war and prosperity that’s a core theme of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. In their book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain how deeply ingrained the military is in the country’s culture. Not only does every citizen engage in mandatory conscription, service in the Israel Defense Force is also very much the glue that holds the country together. It leads to a more collaborative and less hierarchical society, since a CEO in civilian life may end up taking orders from a taxi driver in the service, as well as future business partnerships.

Israel’s focus on military technology is also not surprising, given that most of its neighbours want to see it destroyed. But, just like the U.S. situation detailed in my book, the close ties between the military and private enterprise also result in a good deal of technology transfer to the consumer world, from the ReWalk robotic legs (as seen on Glee!) and the Kinect motion sensor for the Xbox 360.

One of the questions I’m looking to have answered is how long can this success continue? Israel has been the flashpoint of much of the world’s conflict for the past few decades and it’s not inconceivable that it’ll be the last place on Earth where fighting continues. Still, despite the media-driven perception, war and conflict is in steady global decline as the economies of the world become more closely intertwined.

So, what happens to Israel—and the world—if peace finally does somehow come to the Middle East? With technological innovation so closely linked to conflict, will humanity stop advancing if it stops fighting?