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Meet Basel Shbita

Today we’d like to introduce you to Basel Shbita.

Basel, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
As a child, I was raised in a non-conventional multicultural environment —or rather, stuck in the middle of entirely different worlds. My mother is a USSR-born Russian-Georgian of Christian descent, and my father is an Israeli-born Palestinian of Muslim descent. I was raised in Tira, a Palestinian city in the central Arab district of Israel (also called ‘the Triangle’). Growing up, I always felt like an outsider. Wherever I went, I never fitted in.

That feeling pushed me to search for a space that would allow me to fully be myself —without any boundaries. I found that space in the intersection of art and science. I found comfort with the machines and the art supplies. Together, they provided me the ultimate freedom to express myself in different forms and to even —envision the world “I” want to live in.

My interest in art and science started at a young age. When I was ten, I built my first website. Squarespace did not exist back then, so I had to type the source code from scratch. For the website, I uploaded a bunch of short comic-strips I drew—mostly about my cat’s adventures back then. Soon enough, I started posting more of my work and exploring digital and graphic art and learning more about software and code.

Today, I am a scientist, engineer, experimental artist, and burner. During the day, I dive into research as part of my Ph.D. program in Computer Science at USC. My research is focused on the open and connected world of data and how it can be used to make the web machine-readable and serve the emerging wave of AI technologies. During the night and the weekends, I create experimental music, digital and non-digital art, and sketches. I try to incorporate skills from my engineering and coding background into my art. I recently started looking into generative art and how physical microcontrollers and digital artificial neural networks can benefit from the web of open linked data to generate visual art pieces.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Well, you can imagine the sorts of things I had to deal with being such a blend (biologically and culturally) in a conflicted landscape. So yes, there was racial discrimination, xenophobia, prejudice, and sometimes even violence. The hardest parts were the transitions between the different environments and micro-environments.

At fifteen, I left my parent’s house and moved to Jerusalem to attend a selective boarding school, which combines studies in science, music, humanities, and art. This move was an identity-shattering move. It brought a lot of confusion, anger, and chaos into my inner world. Simultaneously frightened and excited by the new, challenging environment of a Palestinian in an Israeli school —and the only Arabic-speaker in my entire grade— I learned that the magic happens right outside of your comfort zone. At 17, I was invited to participate in a summer program at MIT for a couple of months. It was my first time meeting people from all around the globe. Language barriers, culture shock, politics, you name it! But boy, that was a love story. The challenge is what made it interesting. It was an eye-opening experience enabling me to place my work and skills in the context of a broader whole. In my first visit to the US, I felt that I finally found an incubator, one that would foster and cultivate my future self. I wanted to get more exposure, meet people, listen to new narratives, celebrate diversity, enhance creativity, and remove all the barriers that exist between different communities.

My attitude made my following transitions easier, including my move from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles two years ago. I have grown up with people that are scattered on a wide range of the spectrum. Some were poor, some were rich, some had choices, some didn’t have any. Some were lost. This has taught me to always look at the world through the eyes of others and has helped me to acknowledge the importance of diversity, for it is only through the viewpoints of others that I have learned to appreciate and embrace unfamiliar narratives: great things can be crafted from a combination of the unexpected. This has also pushed me to learn my fifth language —Spanish— in addition to my Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, and English.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am currently in the third year of my doctoral program at USC and I am also working as a teaching assistant at the school and as a scientist at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI). Through my research and teaching positions, I aim to empower people —in a data-driven world— to craft superior technologies for a more sustainable (and culturally enriched) future.

My work at ISI, which intersects artificial intelligence, the web, and data science, allows users (and machines) to answer complex questions fast and automatically, using what we call “knowledge graphs” (just like what lies behind Siri or Alexa). Recently, a team I have put together with a friend has been chosen to participate in the Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge 4 —a multimillion-dollar university challenge focused on advancing human-computer interaction.

As for my teaching position, I am instructing a graduate course —alongside two other scientists— that focuses on building knowledge graphs. I constantly aim to empower students by challenging them to acquire new concepts and skills and to apply them to real problems. Last spring we worked with a student to tackle a pertinent issue in the movie industry today by creating software. The software automatically analyzes movie scripts to understand the gaps and triumphs of diversity in movies and then tests their gender portrayal using knowledge graphs.

Simultaneously, I am partaking in social impact initiatives. In 2013, I co-initiated with four community members a volunteering association (“Tira Academics”) to encourage high-school students from my hometown to thrive through higher education opportunities and reach their fullest potential by providing resources, guidance, and workshops. The association has grown since then. Today, it has more than 200 members. In 2018, I gave a TEDx Talk about my journey. I talked about the importance of challenges, change, globalization, diversity, and AI. I couldn’t be more honored to stand in front of 500 people. I was extremely happy to contribute to the place where I grew up.

In 2019, I joined the Kosmic Kamels, a magical group of people from all over South West Asia and North Africa (S.W.A.N.A.) that seeks to create new possibilities for activists, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers, and makers from that region. In our first year at Burning Man as a camp, we were able to have human travelers join us on our pilgrimage from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Dubai, Lebanon, and the US. We were able to come together and co-create a safe space for us to interact and have the courage to build, vision, eat, play, and dream together. Kosmic Kamels are engaged in conflict transformation through an authentic and open engagement between people across lines of conflict. These spaces form the foundations of a mixed community that can inspire to think of a borderless future. A few months ago, we organized several Zoom parties aimed to raise funds for medical supplies for the Gaza Strip, which has been under an ongoing land, air, and sea blockade since 2007. We had more than 350 attendees in a single event.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I am very proud of two personal projects. The first is called, ‘Bas el Art’ (“Just the Art”, partial Arabic). It is an Instagram channel dedicated to my multidisciplinary art practice. I post sketches, animations, and graphic and digital designs. The second is the ‘Lime Travelers’, a musical duo I started with my friend Carlos. This experimental musical project aims to create a multilingual unique musical experience while traveling through a journey of Lo-Fi sounds. I want to incorporate these projects into a data-driven audio-visual experience. Just as I encompass all the parts in me into one whole, I see my role as contributing to the greater whole to make it better, to make us all more connected, just like that web that captured me eighteen years ago.

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