RESEARCH COLLABORATIONS

Academics want patent laws amended to recognise AI as inventor

SOURCE: Franki Chamaki/Unsplash
Should international patent laws be updated to allow AI inventorship?


By U2B Staff 

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A multidisciplinary band of experts has filed patent applications in the name of an AI, kickstarting a landmark challenge to current patent laws that they say are outdated.

The group led by Ryan Abbott, professor of law and health sciences at the University of Surrey, want the AI system named “Dabus AI” to be recognised as the inventor of two creations: an interlocking food container using fractal designs for easier transportation and a lamp that flickers in a rhythm that will draw attention in an emergency situation.

Of course, current patent laws, created at a time when AI was still the stuff of science fiction movies, do not have provisions permitting the “inventorship” of AI. 

Instead, laws in the UK, EU and the US where the applications were filed, state that inventorship can only be assigned to human persons. 

But that’s the whole point of the challenge–Abbott’s group believes the international patents regime to be outdated and ill-prepared to accommodate current changes in technology. They are not wrong to say so, and legal systems in economies everywhere are currently facing the same or similar dilemmas.

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AI and machine learning technologies are in various stages of discovery and implementation in various sectors from healthcare to engineering and beyond. Industry 4.0 isn’t coming, it’s already here, yet regulatory frameworks everywhere remain, more often than not, in discussion or review phase. 

“These days, you commonly have AIs writing books and taking pictures – but if you don’t have a traditional author, you cannot get copyright protection in the US,” Abbott told BBC News last week.

“So with patents, a patent office might say, ‘If you don’t have someone who traditionally meets human-inventorship criteria, there is nothing you can get a patent on.’

“In which case, if AI is going to be how we’re inventing things in the future, the whole intellectual property system will fail to work.”

Dabus AI food container
Drawing shows how fractal designs can be used on the food container. Source: The Artificial Inventor Project

In the case of Dabus (device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience), the AI system itself was created by Dr Stephen Thaler, a Missouri-based AI expert. Dabus was “mentored” by Dr Thaler over a two-month period, during which it fed on thousands of pieces of information, including words and images. 

The result of the mentoring was the two products, created autonomously by Dabus AI, without Dr Thaler’s involvement.

“Whatever you think of the ideas on their own, that’s not really the point,” Abbott says in a Financial Times article.

“What’s striking is that the machine invented in two very different areas, neither of which its programmer had any background in.” 

Dabus AI flashlight
An illustration of the flashlight system created by Dabus AI. Source: The Artificial Inventor Project

He insists the creation process of the two products sufficiently meets the basis for inventorship, and that, had this involved a natural person, there would have been no challenge to the matter.

“The right approach is for the AI to be listed as the inventor and for the AI’s owner to be the assignee or owner of its patents,” Abbott says on the University of Surrey’s website.

“This will reward innovative activities and keep the patent system focused on promoting invention by encouraging the development of inventive AI, rather than on creating obstacles.”

He points out that AI systems could hold the key to solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, from curing cancer to creating solutions to reverse climate change. If IP laws don’t keep pace with the rise of the inventive machine, however, “the lack of incentive for AI developers could stand in the way of a new era of spectacular human endeavour.”

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All three patents offices are currently said to be reviewing the applications. 

A spokeswoman at the European Patent Office, however, has said the matter remains a complex one as amending patent laws to allow AI inventorship would set off a chain of events across the patents regime and other regulatory frameworks.

“It is a global consensus that an inventor can only be a person who makes a contribution to the invention’s conception in the form of devising an idea or a plan in the mind,” she is quoted in BBC News as saying.

“The current state of technological development suggests that, for the foreseeable future, AI is… a tool used by a human inventor.

“Any change… [would] have implications reaching far beyond patent law, ie to authors’ rights under copyright laws, civil liability and data protection.

“The EPO is, of course, aware of discussions in interested circles and the wider public about whether AI could qualify as inventor.”

Abbott is working with an international team of patent attorneys for the project, namely Robert Jehan at Williams Powell, Reuven Mouallem at Flashpoint IP, Malte Koellner at Dennemeyer and Markus Rieck at Fuchs IP. The applications have been posted online, along with further detail and updates on ongoing efforts on The Artificial Inventor Project.