Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Hilary Mason: Use data science and machine intelligence to build a better future

An algorithm can creatively reimagine the Mona Lisa.

Now what?

In the opening keynote of the Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference 2015 in Houston, Texas, Fast Forward Labs CEO Hilary Mason talked about the burgeoning world of data science and machine intelligence, and several of the considerations for how they will affect the future.

But first, in a subtle nod to the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement, Mason introduced herself like this: "I'm a computer scientist, a data scientist, a software engineer, I'm also a CEO and I look like all of those things."

And then she dove into machine intelligence.

"Machines are starting to do things that we might have thought were more in the creative domain of humans," she said, showing several computer-generated takes on the classic Da Vinci painting. Or, she also pointed out some of her favorite data-based apps that have already changed the ways that users function, like Google Maps, Foursquare, or Dark Sky.

Mason outlined reasons why data science and machine learning are having a moment: we have the computing power, we know what to do with data when we have it, and, we're getting access to more and more of it.

Looking at her own history with data, Mason described a moment she and a co-worker had while she was working at Bitly as chief scientist. They were making changes to a Hadoop cluster they had. In order to test a job, they decided to find out what the cutest animal on the internet was.

"We had just used hours of compute time and a petabyte of data to answer the most frivolous question," she said. That ability, though, to "play" with data is important. Mason also referenced a Kickstarter for a LED light up "disco dog" suite — it's a smart phone-controlled vest for your dog.

"When you start to see the ridiculous things occurring, you know something interesting is happening because that means the technology is something we all can use," Mason said.

But, in building new things, even silly things it's important to remember unintended and unforeseen consequences. For example, in 1999, Sony was building and selling a toy robotic dog called Aibo. Recently, though, they stopped supporting them, so if someone happened to still be using their robodog and it malfunctioned, there was no reviving it. And that was actually more common than one would think, leading to funerals for those longtime robotic pets by bereaved owners.

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