AI: can robots be inventors?

The BBC recently reported on two patent applications that have been filed with an AI (Artificial Intelligence) system named as the inventor. This move by academics is to challenge the rule that innovations can only be attributed to humans. The patent attorneys at Serjeants explain what this may mean for the future of patent applications.

The AI system inventionsAI: can robots be inventors?

A computer program, which itself is subject of a patent application, has independently devised two solutions to separate problems. The first invention is new interlocking food containers that are easy for robots to grasp; the second invention is a flickering light source that is more noticeable to users.

UK, US and European patent applications have been filed for both inventions by two professors from the University of Surrey and the inventor of Dabus AI on the computer program’s behalf.

Challenging the patent rules

Patent offices insist that inventions are only attributable to humans to avoid legal complications further down the line concerning corporate inventorship, and the UK Patents Act 1977 currently requires an inventor to be a person. This could see patent offices refusing to assign any intellectual property rights for AI-generated creations. However, the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is aware that this is an issue and is focused on responding to the challenges that AI technology presents.

The applicants in this case have framed the patent applications as challenges to the relevant Patent Offices to accept an inventor that is not a natural person.

In the UK and Europe, the applications are unlikely to be controversial. Neither the UK Patent Office nor the European Patent Office make any effort to verify that the inventor(s) of a patent application are named correctly. As long as at least one inventor is named then an application is allowed to proceed. Similarly, neither Patent Office carries out substantive checks that an applicant is correctly entitled to file a patent application for an invention.

Therefore, in our opinion, it is unlikely that any of the Patent Offices would challenge the naming of a computer program as the inventor. It is much more likely that they would leave any challenges to national courts and then only if the validity of the patents were challenged by third parties. Third party challenges are only likely if the inventions turn out to be commercially valuable.

The future of AI patent applications

Given the above, we believe we can expect headlines for the first granted patent devised by an AI computer program in the near future. However, we are unlikely to find out if computer programs can validly be named as inventors until they invent something valuable and the resulting patents are challenged.

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Click here to read the BBC News article