In what is believed to be the world’s first, a multi-disciplinary research team at the University of Surrey has successfully filed a patent application for two inventions created autonomously by an artificial intelligence system.
It may not have reinvented the wheel, but the AI-powered DABUS (device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience) was able to independently conceive ideas for a food container that can change shape and a flashing light designed to attract attention in an emergency.
There’s just one problem.
According to the UK’s Patents Act 1977, an inventor has to be a “natural person” to prevent legal complications that could arise from the recognition of corporate inventorship. In response to the issue, the Intellectual Property Office have stated their awareness of the current challenge this causes – particularly in light of the government’s prediction that AI technology could increase the UK’s GDP by 10% in the next decade. Nevertheless, this rule could see patent offices refusing intellectual property rights for AI-generated creations.
Clearly concerned for the rights of poor DABUS who was obviously proud of his inventions and eager to protect them, two professors from the University of Surrey have teamed up with the Missouri-based inventor of the AI system to file patents in DABUS’ name with the relevant authorities in the UK, Europe and US.
By making the application for DABUS’ IP rights as an inventor, professor of law and health sciences at the University of Surrey Ryan Abbott hopes to help ensure that people and machines are appropriately credited for their work.
“[We should] incentivise innovation by rewarding inventive activity, regardless of its source” he said. “[We should] insure we acknowledge people for their inventive work, without taking credit for the work of others, and for acknowledging the accomplishments of AI developers.”
According to World IP Review, Abbott claimed that his team had informal discussions with various patent offices around the world over the past year. Some, he said, indicated that they were likely to reject any attempt to list AI as a sole inventor, while “others said they would be more open to it.”
In an age where AI is capable of conceiving new ideas and inventing products independently, do the intellectual property rights belong to the man behind the machine or the machine and not the man?
On one hand, supporting AI patent protection does support human endeavour by proxy – without assigning any protection to the creations of AI, the specialists behind these inventor AIs will surely be less motivated to harness this technology to innovate in areas of need such as inventing cures for deadly disease or solutions to aid with climate change.
Allowing developers, engineers, researchers and scientists to register a patent to the AI will, according to Abbott, “reward innovative activities and keep the patent system focused on promoting invention by encouraging the development of inventive AI, rather than on creating obstacles.”
But if it’s a case of human motivation, does it not make more sense for the human behind the AI to apply for the patent in their name? After all, Ryan Abbott and his team may not have come up with the beverage holder or flashing light themselves, but they did teach the machine to think creatively.
Well, not necessarily. If this logic is applied to AI, the same principle could be applied to the creations of a student in class: they may have conceived an idea independently, but their teacher is responsible for imparting the knowledge that formed the basis of their creation – clearly, this argument doesn’t hold any weight in a human context.
As the capabilities of AI continue to evolve, the question as to whether an AI should be seen by the law as the extension of the engineer behind it or an inventor in their own right will have to be resolved if we are to take full advantage of this technology.
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