JERUSALEM — Twenty-three years ago, a clerk in a small bank opened an account for me — a new immigrant from New York — and stuck the account information in a shoe box.
Startled, I asked: "'What happens if you lose the shoe box?"
"Don't worry, miss," he said matter-of-factly. "We keep a copy in another shoe box."
Israeli information technology: you've come a long way, baby, in nearly a quarter century!
If you think the country's banking sector has made progress in keeping its numbers straight via computers, just check out the 30th International Conference of the Israel Association for Information Technology (known by its Hebrew acronym ILA), which will focus on how computers are likely to change every major aspect of our society in the 21st century.
The three-day conference, due to open in the Jerusalem International Convention Center Jan. 30, will not be a routine meeting of computer experts. They, of course, will be there, but so will top managers from the fields of government, telecommunications, education, entertainment, culture, transport, health and — of course — banking.
Altogether, some 2,500 participants are expected to attend, including hundreds from abroad.
"There will be some 80 lectures, and we specifically wanted to expose the most senior administrators in the country to the new trends in computerization," says Avihu Bin-Nun, chairman of the ILA conference and a former commander of the Air Force.
Bin-Nun, who is currently head of the Israel Auto Importers Association, ranks Israel as "among the top five" nations in the world in computer software and computer communications.
"We're up there with the U.S., Japan, Germany and one or two more European countries," he says. "Specifically in software, we're substantially ahead of Japan."
Bin-Nun credits the Israeli (or Jewish) talent for innovation and improvisation as being responsible for the country's leadership in computers. Zeev Barzilai, the chairman of the conference's program committee, suggests that the Jewish orientation to study, thinking, education and determination produces good computer minds.
"Israel is a brainware country; it is a smart street in the global village," Barzilai says.
Barzilai, previously director of microsystems and parallel computing at IBM's research division, is now on special assignment for IBM's "emerging technologies project" with a focus on supercomputing.
He returned to Israel only last year, after a 15-year stay in the United States, where he worked at IBM's prestigious Watson Research Center in New York and was the executive who led the giant company's efforts in high-performance computing.
Barzilai says the gathering will be "the most important conference on this subject ever held in Israel."
Among the leading foreign participants in the conference will be Nobel Prize-winning scientist Arno Penzias, a vice president of the AT&T Bell Laboratories in the United States, and Tom Jermoluk, president of Silicon Graphics.
A number of cabinet members will attend, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres (who will address the opening plenary session), Health Minister Ephraim Sneh and Industry and Trade Minister Micha Harish.
Parallel sessions on the future of computerization in the public sector, health services, education, entertainment and other fields will be addressed by heads of major local organizations and companies. Leaders in these fields will present problems, and the computer experts will try to present solutions.
"I don't think the general public is yet aware of the basic transformation of society that is awaiting us," Barzilai says. "Information technology will change the way we function and live."
The non-paying general public will not have access to the sessions, but is invited to see (at no charge) a large exhibition on "Information Technology and Computer Communication: the Gate to the 21st Century," which will be open at the convention center.
On the third day, some 2,500 outstanding high-school pupils will be bused in from around the country to see the exhibition and take part in special seminars relating to the convention.
Six weeks ago, the conference organizers opened a home page on the Internet's World Wide Web with information on the event. To reach the conference, type http://www.icl.co.il/ipa96