AI, Not Humans, Could Be Considered Inventors

Courts to rule soon

  • A computer scientist claims that his AI system should be credited for two inventions it generated. 
  • The case could have wide-ranging implications for patent law, but experts are skeptical of the claim. 
  • Superfast AI might one day pump out inventions faster than patent courts can keep up, one expert said.
A human-looking robot interacting with futuristic data screen.

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping humans find everything from new drugs to solving novel mathematics problems. Now, a court is set to decide whether the computer can be considered an inventor. 

A computer scientist recently argued that his AI system should be credited for two inventions it generated. The case could have wide-ranging implications for patent law, but experts are skeptical of the claim. 

"Someone or some corporation at the end of the day owns the AI that is doing the inventing," Bob Bilbruck, the CEO of the technology consulting firm Captjur told Lifewire in an email interview. "AI, after all, is just coding, just like any other computer; although more independent of human input."

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Stephen Thaler, the Founder & Board Chairman at Imagitron, LLC, claims his DABUS system should be considered the inventor on patent applications covering a new type of food container with a specially patterned surface, as well as a light that flashes with a unique pattern of pulses for attracting attention in emergencies. The DABUS system stands for "Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Science."

However, Chief Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore told the court that the Patent Act defines an "inventor" as an "individual or individuals collectively."

"This decision has significant implications for the corporate world, as legal intellectual property is a multi-billion dollar industry," Nicola Davolio, the CEO of Hupry, a privacy company that uses artificial intelligence, said in an email. "The question of who owns the rights to an invention has important implications for how companies funding research and development will look to allocate their resources in the future. If AIs are legally recognized as inventors, it could open up new areas of study and potential products for companies to develop and market."

Intellectual property law professor Alexandra George recently wrote in the journal Nature that a ruling in the case could challenge legal precedents

"Even if we do accept that an AI system is the true inventor, the first big problem is ownership. How do you work out who the owner is?" George wrote. "An owner needs to be a legal person, and an AI is not recognized as a legal person," she says.

Thaler has been fighting his legal battle in courts around the globe. Last year, the Federal court of Australia sided with Thaler. "… Who is the inventor?" the court wrote. "And if a human is required, who? The programmer? The owner? The operator? The trainer? The person who provided input data? All of the above? None of the above? In my view, in some cases, it may be none of the above. In some cases, the better analysis… is to say that the system itself is the inventor. That would reflect the reality".

Invention or Imitation? 

If the court rules that AI can be legally listed as an inventor, it will pave the way for computers to receive patent protection for their inventions, Davolio said. This could mean that AI entities could own and commercialize their innovations, providing a significant financial incentive for companies to develop new and better AI technology.

A holographic robotic arm in a virtual digital world.

Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

"Additionally, it would also give AI entities the ability to sue others for infringement of their patents, providing another avenue for companies to profit from their AI technology," he added. 

Superfast AI might pump out inventions faster than patent courts can keep up, George said. "It might also change the character of the invention," George wrote in an article in The Conversation. "Under well-established patent principles, an 'inventive step' occurs when an invention is considered 'non-obvious' to a 'person skilled in the art.' But an AI system might be more knowledgeable and skilled than any one person on the planet."

Ownership is a crucial part of intellectual property law, George said. AI inventors could stifle investment in new ideas, she added. 

"Another problem with ownership when it comes to AI-conceived inventions is even if you could transfer ownership from the AI inventor to a person: is it the original software writer of the AI?" George said. "Is it a person who has bought the AI and trained it for their own purposes? Or is it the people whose copyrighted material has been fed into the AI to give it all that information?"

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