Q&A: Inventor of PDF looks at Microsoft Garage, AI, and the 4D future

By Edward Pimenta

Editora Globo

São Paulo, Brazil


You may have heard about The Sphere concert hall in Las Vegas, which showcases immersive videos based on Artificial Intelligence created by Turkish-American artist Refik Anadol.

Anadol became known to the general public because of the installation “Unsupervisioned,” a huge digital screen with an endless flow of images, which was on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until October 2023.

For American designer and author Mike Pell, one of the main innovation leaders at Microsoft, works like those by Anadol are good examples of a new approach to graphic computing that Pell calls 4D.

It’s no coincidence that Pell’s most recent book, Visualizing Businesses, released in the United States in August, has a foreword written by Anadol himself, with whom he shares the obsession to simplify life’s most complex things.

The Sphere showcases immersive videos based on Artificial Intelligence, offering a peek into the world of 4D.
The Sphere showcases immersive videos based on Artificial Intelligence, offering a peek into the world of 4D.

Over 200 pages, Pell discusses how AI, data visualisation, and spatial computing will change the way we understand global business. “Businesses are alive, complex; it makes no sense to make decisions based on static representations. However, we insist on using primitive charts to show them,” he wrote in the opening of the book.

He explains that 4D adds the time dimension to 3D. It’s no longer about having a three-dimensional view. The increased computational capacity and AI will make it possible for graphic representations of processes, flows, and results to be observed in deep levels of detail and variables.

It will allow for a smooth movement from the future to the past with simple commands, not just by organising historical data but by adding predictions with assertiveness. “This will change the understanding we have of business today,” Pell wrote.

The author lives in Manhattan, near Bryant Park. Pell told me this is just a few metres from the building that, at the beginning of the 20th century, housed the Engineers’ Club, which was frequented by inventors like Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse.

Pell became famous for leading the creation of the universal PDF format in the 1990s. For 10 years he has been leading the Microsoft Garage, the company’s global innovation programme. In his career, he has worked with interactive data visualisation, interface design, holograms, games, and the metaverse. He has 22 invention patents registered in his name in the United States.

In an interview that began in person in São Paulo during a private UBS Bank event and ended by e-mail, Pell spoke about creativity and the day he met Steve Jobs.

Q: What is Microsoft Garage, and what is your role?

A: It’s a Microsoft innovation programme with a presence in various cities, where employees, clients, and non-governmental organisations bring their ideas, and we help guide them.

I’m an artist first and foremost, but I’ve worked as a technologist, entrepreneur, and in business, marketing, and sales, and my background allows me to understand the nature of innovation and prototyping. At Microsoft, I had the opportunity to work on engineering teams and guide people in hackathons or small groups of creation and entrepreneurship.

Q: How will AI shape the future of business?

A: Artificial Intelligence has reached a point where it not only helps us understand what’s happening now but also to look back in history, review insights, and predict the future through simulations. It’s not just about generative AI and its ability to generate content, but also machine learning, deep learning, and other aspects of AI that will help us better understand business and the world around us.

Q: Should AI be regulated?

A: In the recent document Microsoft presented to the government of the United States about the need for regulation, we propose that humans remain in control. We add protections, ensuring not only that the systems are safe but that they act responsibly so people understand how they work and have the ability to stop them if necessary.

Q: How do you combine art and technology in your creative work?

A: Creativity is about trying. It’s about being bold and open to trying new things, without fear of trial and error. In some cases, we get it right; in others we just open up new ways of thinking.

Art and technology have been inseparable for centuries. Artists have always sought tools to express themselves. Technology has merged into the creative process; it’s in music production, fine arts, writing, movies. It gives us the ability to test things we never dreamed of. The sky’s the limit.

Q: You talk about a certain “moment of clarity.”

A: The moment of clarity is that millisecond when everything fits together and is understood. We all pursue building that moment, especially designers. Extracting insights from the analysis of charts and spreadsheets is one of the hardest parts of the job. AI will help us represent reality more concisely and objectively, and clarity moments will be within reach of many more people.

Q: What was your meeting with Steve Jobs like?

A: In the mid-1980s, in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs and Apple were bringing the Macintosh to market — an exciting time for those developing software and hardware. I worked at Adobe, and Steve Jobs liked my boss, John Warnock. They had a father-son relationship. Steve always came to see what John was doing. I had the chance to see Steve in a relaxed and friendly environment. It was fun to be in his presence, to see him interested in what we were doing. If I do what I do today, it’s because of him. He has always been an inspiration for his vision and ability to execute.

Q. What was the invention of the PDF like?

A: Warnock, the boss of Adobe Systems, wanted to create a file format that could be exchanged between Macs and PCs, which in 1990 was practically impossible. He then assembled a team, which I was part of, to prototype this crazy idea.

It took a few weeks, and the prototype was made with a workaround: The first PDF document was composed of three different types of Illustrator files. We hacked a PostScript interpreter to be able to read the new format and display it on the screen, thus we created a proof of concept for what later became known as Adobe Acrobat and the PDF file format, an invention that revolutionised the business world.

About Edward Pimenta

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