A conversation with Nizar Habash, associate professor of computer science, director of the Computational Approaches to Modeling Language Lab, and head of the computer science program.
I’m Palestinian originally, but as for many Palestinians today, I didn’t grow up in Palestine. I was born in Baghdad, in Iraq, I’ve lived in Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia, and was a Jordanian citizen. At 18, I went to the US to study; and, after living there for some 22 years, I became an American citizen. All my adult life has been in an American context, but I grew up in the Arab world. Before I came to NYU Abu Dhabi, I was at Columbia University in New York.
In my area as a computer scientist, I work on artificial intelligence, specifically language – for example, how to get a chatbot to work, or how to get the computer to understand the meaning of the words you say. My PhD was in machine translation, and now I’m focused on Arabic language processing. In my lab we work on every aspect of the language from disambiguation to identifying a language’s morphology and syntax, as well as projects on chatbots and on addressing gender bias in machine translation.
After my PhD, I came to focus on Arabic and Arabic dialects, and I wanted to develop artificial intelligence tools for Arabic. When I saw the adverts for NYU Abu Dhabi I fell in love with the idea of the place. The combination of a liberal arts model targeting students from all over the world, and the emphasis on research, makes NYU Abu Dhabi a fantastic place for my research and teaching interests.
I teach in my specialty, of course, but my general core course is called Words. I get to talk about language from the perspective of many different fields (linguistics, computer science, political science and visual art), and the course project is to create new constructed languages.
So far my students have created 14 over three years. It’s such a fun experience, particularly here where you have students from every linguistic background you can imagine.
During my interview, the dean at the time asked me, "Do you think of yourself as a linguist or a computer scientist?" — my undergraduate education involved one degree in linguistics, and another in computer engineering, and my PhD was in computer science in natural language processing and computational linguistics. It was a question that made me both nervous and excited, because although my specialty is in their intersection, they can be quite different fields, and I did not know where he was going with the question. When the dean then told me about the idea of the core courses, and teaching across disciplines, I was so excited I wanted to jump up and down. When I describe my core course to people, I pinch myself. I can’t believe I get paid for this. It’s what I love.
It’s very intellectually stimulating being here, but, while it might sound like a boring old professor thing to say, having lived in New York, it’s also lovely and quiet! I live on campus, so my commute from home to my office is about three minutes.
I love the weather. In winter it’s just amazing, but now I also actually like summers. I’ll go for what I call a ‘sauna walk’ in the summer evenings and come home to a cold shower. It’s brilliant. Plus walking at night, anywhere, is never an issue. My experience of the country is that it’s a place that respects your privacy and I feel incredibly secure living here. There’s wonderful food in the city, not just in terms of restaurants but even in the supermarkets, where there’s incredible choice – you can get ingredients to cook Arabic food, Japanese food, Thai food, whatever you like. I never feel like I miss anything compared with living in the US. In fact there are more choices readily accessible here in comparison to the US.
Abu Dhabi is a true center of the world. I’ve always traveled but from here it’s so much easier — I’ve been to Japan, Italy, Greece, France, Ireland, and even Kazakhstan — all direct flights from Abu Dhabi!
Also because it’s a research university, we get a lot of support for travel for research and for publishing our work.
I’ve been here five years now, and I’m looking forward to another 10 or 15 years. This has become home. Choosing to come here was the best decision I made. I’m still absolutely convinced — it was exactly the right choice.
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