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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

The company has also examined probabilistic methods for analyzing real-time streams, with a prototype that displays popular topics across Twitter and Reddit as nodes in a dynamically changing graph.

A more recent report delves into deep learning -- an algorithmic family of techniques, based on highly connected neural networks -- as applied to image analysis, with prototypes that identify images in Instagram photos, categorize them, show them in pictograph form and display users' top interests. (If you are into Instagram, you can have some fun playing around with a public, simplified version of the prototype here.

A new take on innovation

Mason has called Fast Forward Labs "my current hack," an attempt to fill gaps in how new technology develops in established companies, academia and startups. "I believe there are a lot of inefficiencies in the way technical innovation happens," Mason says. For example, she notes, there is "friction" for people who want to do something different in established enterprises with successful products.

 "We sit in the middle of the enterprise, the startups, and the research community, and we look through those things that have just become possible and interesting and then we try to make them useful to our clients who have data, have a business, understand those things very well and are looking for growth opportunities," she says. The company does not write code for clients, but advises them on topics including system architecture and how to build a team around data science.

Increasingly, enterprises are competing and innovating by analyzing data they have collected to optimize decision making, using advanced analytics and machine-learning algorithms.

"By 2018 over half of large organizations globally will compete using advanced analytics and proprietary algorithms, causing the disruption of entire industries" market research firm Gartner said in a recent report authored by analyst Jim Hare. Companies are starting to use statistical analysis, predictive modeling and decision optimization as ways to compete, Hare wrote.

A key piece of what Fast Forward Labs does is to find machine intelligence techniques that are interesting and are becoming possible to do in real-life business scenarios, but which have not yet been commoditized -- a condition that can create a competitive advantage for companies that are early adapters of new technology.

Though the Fast Forward Labs team is small, that fact that the members have varied backgrounds helps them cast a wide net when looking for new topics to explore, says Ryan Micallef, one of the staff. Micallef himself started out as a programmer out of college, but then went to law school and became a patent lawyer.

Hilary Mason and Fast Forward staff
Marc Ferranti. Fast Forward Labs CEO Hilary Mason, left, in her office with team members, from left to right, Nick Vermeer and Ryan Micallef.


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