Congress Looking at Data Science for Ways to Improve Patent Operations

When Congress passed the sweeping Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) on September 16, 2011, legislators weren’t concerned about how data analytics might improve efficiencies at one of the Commerce Department’s most data-heavy institutions: the US Patent Office. Patent reformers at the time were instead focused on curtailing patent troll litigation and conforming aspects of US patent law to those of other countries. Consequently, the Patent Office’s trove of pre-classified, pre-labeled, and semi-structured patent application and invention data–information ripe for big data analytics–remained mostly untapped at the time.

Fast forward to 2018 and Congress has finally put patent data in its cross-hairs. Now, Congress wants to see how “advanced data science analytics” techniques, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other methods, could be used to analyze patent data and make policy recommendations. If enacted, the “Building Innovation Growth through Data for Intellectual Property Act” or the “BIG Data for IP Act” of 2018 (S. 2601; sponsored by Sen. Coons and Sen. Hatch) would require an investigation into how data science could help the Patent Office understand its current capabilities and whether its information technology systems need modernizing.

Those objectives, however, may be too narrow.  Silicon Valley tech companies, legal tech entrepreneurs, and even students have already seized upon the opportunities big patent data and machine learning techniques present, and, as a result, have developed interesting and useful capabilities.

Take, for example, the group of Stanford University students who in late 2011 developed a machine learning technique to automatically classify US patent applications based on an application’s written invention description. The students, part of Stanford’s CS229 Machine Learning class, proposed their solution around the same time Senators Leahy, Smith, and the rest of Congress were debating the AIA in the fall of 2011.  More recently, AI technologies used by companies like Cloem, AllPriorArt, AllPriorClaims, RoboReview, Specif.io, and others have shown how patent data and AI can augment traditional patent practitioner’s roles in the legal services industry.

Some of these AI tools may one day reduce much of the work patent practitioners have traditionally performed and could lead to fewer Examiners at the Patent Office whose jobs are to review patent applications for patentability. Indeed, some have imagined a world in which advanced machine learning models conceive inventions and prepare and file a patent application to protect those ideas without further human input.  In the future, advanced machine learning models, trained on the “prior art” patent data, could routinely examine patent applications for patentability, thus eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming inter partes reviews (a trial-like proceeding that has created much uncertainty since enactment of the AIA).

So perhaps Congress’ BIG Data for IP Act should focus less on how advanced data analytics can be used to “improve consistency, detect common sources of error, and improve productivity,” as the bill is currently written, and focus more globally on how patent data, powering new AI models, will disrupt Patent Office operations, the very nature of innovation, and how patent applications are prepared, filed, and examined.

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