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Data scientist Hilary Mason wants to show you the (near) future

Marc Ferranti | March 28, 2016
Hacking the system: Machine intelligence startup Fast Forward Labs takes a unique approach to sparking innovation

Fast Founder Labs CEO Hilary Mason.
Fast Founder Labs CEO Hilary Mason.
 Credit: Marc Ferranti

If you want to get a jump on the latest developments in machine intelligence, head down to where Manhattan's Lower East Side borders Chinatown, a still-gritty but gentrifying neighborhood where hip coffee houses are springing up next to industrial-supply outlets and wholesale stores.

The location, an area in the midst of transition and modernization, is a fitting spot for Fast Forward Labs, a startup founded to help companies innovate and compete using what founder and CEO Hilary Mason calls "recently possible" machine intelligence techniques and technology.

Fast Forward Labs has an unusual business model. It produces quarterly reports on emerging -- or what Mason calls "near future" -- technology, builds prototypes to demonstrate the technology, and offers advisory services. The business is based on a subscription model: For an annual fee, clients get access to the reports and prototypes plus time with Mason and her colleagues, who guide them on how to apply the technology to their own businesses. "The role we play here is basically we're their nerd best friend," Mason says.

The basic idea is to help businesses accelerate their data science and machine intelligence capabilities. Fast Forward Lab’s eight-person team has attracted attention in a burgeoning market for machine-intelligence oriented vendors, consultancies and market research firms, largely on the strength of Mason's industry profile and unique approach to research – several publications including The Wall Street Journal have called her a "big data rock star."

Fast Forward Labs
Marc Ferranti Fast Forward Labs looks out from above a vacant restaurant furnishings store on to a Manhattan Lower East Side neighborhood in transition.

Before founding Fast Forward Labs in 2014, Mason held the chief scientist position at URL-shortening company Bitly and over the last few years has been in the Fortune "40 under 40 Ones To Watch," among other such lists.

Mason says she started programming at age five, but her star has risen not just on the strength of her technical skills. She has a humanistic approach to data science, an engaging public speaking style, and the ability to make abstruse topics accessible to non-experts. As a data scientist, "you really need to have a lot of empathy for the work you're doing and the people who you're ultimately trying to help whether that's a business colleague, a boss, or ultimately the user of the software you're building," Mason says.

Technologies explored by Fast Forward Labs so far include natural language generation, with a prototype that automatically creates real estate listings with full sentences, based on a list of attributes users click on.


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