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.

Patenting Artificial Intelligence Technology: 2018 Continues Upward Innovation Trend

If the number of patents issued in the first quarter of 2018 is any indication, artificial intelligence technology companies were busy a few years ago filing patents for machine learning inventions.

According to US Patent and Trademark Office records, the number of US “machine learning” patents issued to US applicants during the first quarter of 2018 rose 17% compared to the same time period in 2017. The number of US “machine learning” patents issued to any applicant (not just US applicants) rose nearly 19% during the same comparative time period. Mostly double-digit increases were also observed in the case of US origin and total US patents mentioning “neural network” or “artificial intelligence.” Topping the list of companies obtaining patents were IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Intel.

The latest patent figures include any US issued patent in which “machine learning,” “artificial intelligence,” or “neural network” is mentioned in the patent’s invention description (to the extent those mentions were ancillary to the invention’s disclosed utility, the above figures are over-inclusive). Because patent applications may spend 1-3 years at the US Patent Office (or more, if claiming priority to earlier-filed patent applications), the Q1 2018 numbers are reflective of innovation activity possibly several years ago.

Federal Circuit: AI, IoT, and Robotics in “Danger” Due to Uncertainty Surrounding Patent Abstraction Test

In Purepredictive, Inc. v. H2O.ai, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (J. Orrick) granted Mountain View-based H2O.ai’s motion to dismiss a patent infringement complaint. In doing so, the court found that the claims of asserted U.S. patent 8,880,446 were invalid on the grounds that they “are directed to the abstract concept of the manipulation of mathematical functions and make use of computers only as tools, rather than provide a specific improvement on a computer-related technology.”

Decisions like this hardly make news these days, what with the frequency by which software patents are being invalidated by district courts across the country following the Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank decision. Perhaps that is why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the specialized appeals court for patent cases based in Washington, DC, chose a recent case to publicly acknowledge that “great uncertainty yet remains” concerning Alice’s patent-eligibility test, despite the large number of post-Alice cases that have “attempted to provide practical guidance.”  Calling the uncertainty “dangerous” for some of today’s “most important inventions in computing” (specifically identifying medical diagnostics, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics), the Federal Circuit expressed concern that perhaps Alice has gone too far, a belief shared by others, especially smaller technology companies whose value is tied to their software intellectual property.

Utah-based Purepredictive says its ‘446 patent involves “AI driving machine learning ensembling.” The district court characterized the patent as being directed to a software method that performs “predictive analytics” in three steps. In the method’s first step, the court said, it receives data and generates “learned functions,” or, for example, regressions from that data. Second, it evaluates the effectiveness of those learned functions at making accurate predictions based on the test data. Finally, it selects the most effective learned functions and creates a rule set for additional data input. This method, the district court found, is merely “directed to a mental process” performed by a computer, and “the abstract concept of using mathematical algorithms to perform predictive analytics” by collecting and analyzing information.

Alice critics have long pointed to the subjective nature of Alice’s patent-eligibility test. Under Alice, for subject matter of a patent claim to be patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101, it may not be “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept, i.e., a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. If it is, however, it may nevertheless be patentable subject matter if the particular elements of the claim, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, add enough to transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. This two-part test has led to the invalidation of many software patents as “abstract,” and presents an obstacle for inventors of new software tools seeking patent protection for their inventions.

In the Purepredictive case, the district court found that the claim’s method “are mathematical processes that not only could be performed by humans but also go to the general abstract concept of predictive analytics rather than any specific application.” The “could be performed by humans” query would seem problematic for many software-based patent claims, including those directed to AI algorithms, despite the recognition that humans could never perform the same feat as many AI algorithms in a lifetime due to the enormous domain space these algorithms are tasked with evaluating.

In any event, while Alice’s abstract test will continue to pose challenges to those seeking patents, time will tell whether it will have “dangerous” impacts on the burgeoning AI, IoT, and robotics industries suggested by the Federal Circuit.

Sources:

Purepredictive, Inc. v. H2O.AI, Inc., slip op., No. 17-cv-03049-WHO (N.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2017).

Smart Systems Innovations, LLC v. Chicago Transit Authority, slip. op. No. 2016-1233 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 18, 2017) (citing Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354-55 (2014)).