Artificial Intelligence Won’t Achieve Legal Inventorship Status Anytime Soon

Imagine a deposition in which an inventor is questioned about her conception and reduction to practice of an invention directed to a chemical product worth billions of dollars to her company. Testimony reveals how artificial intelligence software, assessing huge amounts of data, identified the patented compound and the compound’s new uses in helping combat disease. The inventor states that she simply performed tests confirming the compound’s qualities and its utility, which the software had already determined. The attorney taking the deposition moves to invalidate the patent on the basis that the patent does not identify the true inventor. The true inventor, the attorney argues, was the company’s AI software.

Seem farfetched? Maybe not in today’s AI world. AI tools can spot cancer and other problems in diagnostic images, as well as identify patient-specific treatments. AI software can identify workable drug combinations for effectively combating pests. AI can predict biological events emerging in hotspots on the other side of the world, even before they’re reported by local media and officials. And lawyers are becoming more aware of AI through use of machine learning tools to predict the relevance of case law, answer queries about how a judge might respond to a particular set of facts, and assess the strength of contracts, among other tools. So while the above deposition scenario is hypothetical, it seems far from unrealistic.

One thing is for sure, however; an AI program will not be named as an inventor or joint inventor on a patent any time soon. At least not until Congress amends US patent laws to broaden the definition of “inventor” and the Supreme Court clarifies what “conception” of an invention means in a world filled with artificially-intelligent technologies.

That’s because US patent laws are intended to protect the natural intellectual output of humans, not the artificial intelligence of algorithms. Indeed, Congress left little wiggle room when it defined “inventor” to mean an “individual,” or in the case of a joint invention, the “individuals” collectively who invent or discover the subject matter of an invention. And the Supreme Court has endorsed a human-centric notion of inventorship. This has led courts overseeing patent disputes to repeatedly remind us that “conception” is the touchstone of inventorship, where conception is defined as the “formation in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention, as it is hereafter to be applied in practice.”

But consider this. What if “in the mind of” were struck from the definition of “conception” and inventorship? Under that revised definition, an AI system might indeed be viewed as conceiving an invention.

By way of example, let’s say the same AI software and the researcher from the above deposition scenario were participants behind the partition in a classic Turing Test. Would an interrogator be able to distinguish the AI inventor from the natural intelligence inventor if the test for conception of the chemical compound invention is reduced to examining whether the chemical compound idea was “definite” (not vague), “permanent” (fixed), “complete,” “operative” (it works as conceived), and has a practical application (real world utility)? If you were the interrogator in this Turing Test, would you choose the AI software or the researcher who did the follow-up confirmatory testing?

Those who follow patent law may see the irony of legally recognizing AI software as an “inventor” if it “conceives” an invention, when the very same software would likely face an uphill battle being patented by its developers because of the apparent “abstract” nature of many software algorithms.

In any case, for now the question of whether inventorship and inventions should be assessed based on their natural or artificial origin may merely be an academic one. But that may need to change when artificial intelligence development produces artificial general intelligence (AGI) that is capable of performing the same intellectual tasks that a human can.

One thought on “Artificial Intelligence Won’t Achieve Legal Inventorship Status Anytime Soon”

  1. Mr. Higgins, the first question that came to mind was intent of the framers of the Constitution (and the preceding English laws) for granting inventorship, which you characterized as being that “US patent laws are intended to protect the natural intellectual output of humans…”. I agree that not only was that their intent, but that such intent is also a manifestation of more fundamental core concept of fundamental and inalienable human rights. This then becomes the foundation upon which the question of ownership rights of AI creations must be answered. This, however, is one valid example of how the Founders could not have foreseen the consequences of technological advances (as opposed to, for example, the 2nd amendment debate about muskets and semiautomatic arms). As I see it, the issue is that it will be necessary to evolve patent law to consider inventor’s rights to inventions directly created by a mechanism or device that originated with the human inventor. This would not be inconsistent with the original intent; invention X would not exist but for the intellectual rigor of the human designer of the AI. That said, I fully acknowledge that this, while a simple 50,00 foot observation, becomes a virtually impassable thorny thicket at ground level. Nonetheless, as Prof. Glenn Harlan Reynolds often states, “Faster please.”. This is my first visit to your blog, and I am starting with the first article. I look forward to reading more and commend you for shining a light on this issue.

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