Steve Waite: It is wonderful to speak with you today, Ping. You have accomplished some great things in your long and distinguished career. Tell us a bit little about your background.

Ping Fu: My journey began back in China. I was a maker of things. When I was young I didn’t go through the normal education process. I worked a lot in the factory.

SW: How did you end up coming to America?

PF: Although I was a maker, I had aspirations of being a journalist in China. I was studying Chinese literature and working on my thesis. I wanted to be a reporter. My journalism clashed with the powers that be. The authorities gave me a choice: I could leave the country or be sent away to a far remote village. I thought leaving would be a better option of the two.

SW: I see. Where did you begin your journey when you arrived in America?

PF: I started at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I did not speak much English and had to learn the language. I was aiming to study English literature and quickly realized my English language skills were too poor to continue that line of study. I saw that I could study computer science. It was a new field. At the time in the early 1980s, there weren’t any women in the field. I convinced myself that instead of writing essays on Montague, I would instead write code for the future not yet imagined. I got into computers very early.

SW: What type of programming did you do back in the day?

PF: I started with Basic, then did Fortran and Pascal. When I left the University of New Mexico in 1986, I went to UC San Diego and learned C++ while I was there. I was working with an entrepreneur named Len Sherman. We met one day while I was walking on the beach. He had a software company. He brought me on board to work with him while I was studying outside of UCSD and trying to get into school there. Working with Len was my first exposure to entrepreneurship.

SW: So you had the best of both worlds in San Diego, working with an entrepreneur while pursuing a degree in computer science.

PF: Yes. Len wanted me to stay with his company. I got an offer to work at Bell Labs in Illinois. That offer came with free education for graduate school. This was in 1988. I saw the offer as a great opportunity. In China, the only company we knew was Bell Labs. I ended up moving to Illinois and working at Bell Labs from 1988 to 1991. I worked on the seven layers of Internet Protocol, ISDN and real-time telephony. This was the early days of digital communications technology, when central switching was transitioning to packet switching.

Digital switching is literally distributed computing. Bell Labs couldn’t use the old database. They needed a new relational database. Bell Labs had invented C++ for object-oriented programming. As I mentioned, I had used C++ back in San Diego with Len’s company to do relational database work. I had the exact skillset Bell Labs was looking for at the time. When I got hired by Bell Labs, C++ wasn’t being taught yet. I was among a small group of people that knew how to program in that language.

SW: I see. So it was from moving to Bell Labs in Illinois that you ended up working with Larry Smarr and Marc Andreessen at NCSA and becoming immersed in software design.

PF:  Yes. I got a job at NCSA as Director of Visualization. At that time computer graphics was emerging. I was excited about it. I realized at Bell Labs that what I excelled at was software design and not programming. At the time, software design was not taught in school. I made myself good at it. There’s an artistic and scientific technical aspect to software design that resonates strongly with me.

I have always approached software design from thinking about its relevance and how people will use it. It is similar to writing. When you write something, it’s all about the readership. That’s how I approach software design. Design is all about the experience of the user and delivering software that people can use. Software design is where art meets science, and that is one of the reasons I went to NCSA. I love the creativity and rigor associated with software design. They go hand in hand.

SW: What were some of the major accomplishments of you and your talented colleagues at NCSA?

PF: The first project I got to work on at NCSA was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was really excited about working on this project. I was willing to work on this without being paid. In fact, I took a big pay cut from Bell Labs to work at NCSA, but I was very excited about the opportunity to work on projects like Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

We also did pioneering work in distributed computing. The two major technologies to emerge from our work distributive computing at NCSA were the Mosaic browser that evolved into Netscape, Internet Explorer and Firefox, and HTTP Server. The software developed at NCSA was a true team effort that came out of the interdisciplinary, collective intelligence culture that Larry Smarr cultivated at NCSA.

SW: Those were indeed major accomplishments! Congratulations on some fine work with some first-rate computer science minds. As interesting and rewarding as the work was at NCSA, you had more entrepreneurial things to accomplish in your career. Tell us about the opportunity you saw when you founded Geomagic.

PF: When Marc Andreessen and a few others started Netscape, I went to Hong Kong to help deploy a mini supercomputing center before Hong Kong went back to China. While I was there, I ended up helping some people start Hong Kong Supernet, which became the largest internet provider in Southeast Asia. When I returned to the U.S., Netscape went public and the University of Illinois got energized by what was going on and began bringing in venture capitalists and business development people to look for the next killer app. I had a baby at the time and wanted to be a mother. What happened is that I saw a demo of a 3D printer from 3D Systems. I was hooked instantly because of my makers background. I was fascinated by a machine being able to print something out.

In speaking with the people at 3D Systems, I realized there wasn’t any good software developed for a 3D printer. There was CAD software, but there were difficulties interoperating with a 3D printer. I saw a major opportunity to design software for 3D printers and founded Geomagic to pursue the opportunity. Through some research, I discovered that there were hundreds of 3D scanners that didn’t have good software. I had the idea of writing software that connected 3D scanners with 3D printers. I thought this could be real breakthrough. It was one of those “Ah ha!” moments. I also had the idea of a 3D Facsimile machine.

SW: That sounds like the Replicator technology on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

PF: (laughing) Yes! That’s how I pitched the technology.

SW: At a time when the world is going, you begin doing pioneering 3D design software development at Geomagic that ultimately leads back to 3D Systems through an acquisition in 2012. Fascinating how things work out. All of your hard work at Geomagic has brought us to an exciting juncture with 3D printing.

PF: Yes. It has been an interesting journey. At the time I started Geomagic, I had no idea how difficult it would be to do what I envisioned. We have come a long way and I’m excited about where things are going.

SW: There is plenty to be excited about today with respect to 3D printing. What innovative 3D software design technologies look intriguing to you today?

PF: I am very excited about two things. One is the concept of ‘resilience design’ versus ‘robust design.’ Resilience design is not about designing something that never fails, but designing with known failure characteristics that can be repaired very quickly. With this type of design process, you confront failure head on and incorporate it into the design. You anticipate failure and seek ways to rapidly address the failures. I view this as more of a modern design concept. It was used, for example, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge design. We are incorporating resilience design in The Long Now Foundation, which is led by Stewart Brand. When you think about it, the 3D printing process itself is the ultimate resilience design.

The other thing I’m really excited about is machine learning, which I think of as interchangeable with Artificial Intelligence. I think the intersection of machine learning with human learning is an exciting area. We can outsource part of our brain to machines, which perform certain functions better than humans. This frees up humans to do things that machines aren’t good at doing.

Imagine how much better the design will be. Right now we stuff our brains with a lot of things that are tedious and we don’t particularly enjoy doing. Machines can do these types of things. They don’t care. We know that if you talk to the best designers they will say, if you let me design once, I will give you a good design. If you allow me to iterate ten times, I will not only give you a great design, I will also make it cheaper and better. With machine learning technology, we get speed and scale, which are important from a design perspective. Machines can present to us different designs and handle all of the tedious stuff very quickly and free up human creative time to create better designs. I’m very excited about this.

SW: We are too, Ping! We look forward to listening to you speak more about this topic at the upcoming COFES event. Thank you very much for your time today. It has been wonderful spending time with you.