AI Inventors

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Recently, the USPTO denied an application because it listed an AI as an inventor. At the same time, they requested public comments on the issue, asking:

Do current patent laws and regulations regarding inventorship need to be revised to take into account inventions where an entity or entities other than a natural person contributed to the conception of an invention?

The Applicant in the case was a group called the Artificial Inventor Project, who state on their site that:

This site is dedicated to a project seeking intellectual property rights for the autonomous output of artificial intelligence.

In the FAQ section, they state:

[At] least some of the time, the act that qualifies a natural person to be an inventor…is functionally automated by a machine. Further, some of the time there isn’t a person who would traditionally qualify as an inventor. In those cases, we argue the machine is not “just a tool”, it is automating invention…

We are not advocating for an AI to own its patents. We are advocating for the AI’s owner to own patents on any AI-generated inventions. AI does not have legal personality and cannot own property.

So, what is the point? If an AI can’t be an owner, who even cares whether it can be an inventor?

It appears that at least one goal of the project is just to clarify the law regarding who owns an invention if parts of the invention process are automated. So, for example, what if there is a conflict between someone who trains the machine and someone who owns the machine? What about someone who is operating the machine?

In copyright law, this issue would be handled by “work-for-hire” laws. However, as described here, there actually is a discrepancy in copyright law and patent law: a non-person person can be an author under copyright law, but they can’t be an inventor under patent law.

I am not an expert in copyright law, but as discussed here, I don’t think that means an AI could be an author…more like a corporate entity. That is, a corporate entity can be an author because it is the one doing the hiring, which it can do because it is already recognized as a legal entity in many ways.

Ultimately I think the issue of AI inventors is a bit of a red herring. As a society, we are not on the verge of recognizing AI as people. It is fun to think about the possibility of AI becoming sentient, but true artificial general intelligence (AGI) is probably quite a ways off. For the time being, conflicts about AI inventorship are really just work for hire type conflicts in disguise.

For me, there are more pressing questions right now. Some of them were asked by the USPTO in the same document requesting comments about AI inventorship. For example:

Are there any patent eligibility considerations unique to AI inventions?

and

Does there need to be a change in the level of detail an applicant must provide in order to comply with the written description requirement, particularly for deep-learning systems that may have a large number of hidden layers with weights that evolve during the learning/training process without human intervention or knowledge?

So, the question of AI inventors is fun in the same way as monkeys taking selfies. But we shouldn’t get too distracted.