AIhub coffee corner: AI as an inventor

14 February 2020

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The AIhub coffee corner captures the musings of AI experts over a 30-minute conversation. This edition focusses on AI as an inventor. This discussion was prompted by news that an artificial intelligence system was named as the inventor of two ideas in patents filed in the UK, Europe and US last summer.

Involved in the discussion for this edition are: Sabine Hauert (University of Bristol), Michael Littman (Brown University), Carles Sierra (CSIC) and Pedro Lima (University of Lisbon).

Sabine Hauert: Should AI be able to file a patent?

Michael Littman: If an AI can read and understand, and then carry out the patent-submission process, I would consider it. Until then, some human being needs to be involved and take primary responsibility.

Carles Sierra: To me the main questions are, “Can the AI that generates a new design contribute to the negotiation process and exploitation of the patent? Can the AI understand the filing process, which is different from the design process?”. If you open this door, then any program that generates anything with a technological impact could become a patent filer. I think patents should be owned by the developer of the AI.

Sabine: But should the AI be seen as an inventor?

Carles: You would need a general intelligence to understand how to handle the impact (for example, in social and commercial terms) of the invention. A patent is exploited in order to result in a product. How does it make sense that the AI would make the money? You need something more general than the act of creating the technology. We are currently far away from this.

Michael: AI is a partner to the invention process. But a human being is the one responsible for the disclosure.

Carles: And the AI doesn’t know who funded it – it doesn’t have the relevant knowledge.

Sabine: Just to clarify, the BBC article says the AI should be recognised as being the inventor, and whoever the AI belonged to should be the patent’s owner, unless they sold it on.

Carles: It’s the same as any other patent filing then. The challenge is that by making the AI the Inventor, are we giving it rights? This is a legal issue. If we offer rights to AI – then we enter philosophical realms. However, it is worth noting that times change. For example, in the past it would have been unthinkable to give animals rights, but this is something that I think should happen (there has been a big debate about this in Spain with regards to bullfighting). If attitudes towards animals can change, then it’s also possible that attitudes towards AI and rights will change too.

Michael: An AI is not a cognisant party in this process. Would a songwriter give writing credit to the sounds of a box of toys falling down the steps if he/she uses it in a song? Is the camera responsible for the photo? I’d say no – some person has to recognize the value of what was created and that’s part of the process as well. Could it happen in the future? I think so. Are we there now? We are not even close.

Pedro Lima: Even having a program that understands the full process of submitting a patent could be an AI. Another question to address is: why would the AI care about being attributed authorship of an invention? Humans do it for glory, money, etc. Why would an AI do it – why is this relevant?

Sabine: So you’re saying the AI could be used in two separate parts of the process. The inventing, and the filing?

Pedro: Yes, you could do both inventing and filing the patent, but why do it (especially with regards to the creation part)?

Carles: I’m not denying the possibility of an AI being creative. I think AI can be radically innovative. I’m just doubtful that the AI should have the legal rights to do it. It can’t refrain from creating, there is no act of consciousness.

Pedro: It’s nice that the program is capable of doing it – but why would the algorithm file the patent?

Sabine: Could the idea of automatic patenting break the patent system?

Michael: There’s a cost to process each patent. The patent office would declare random submissions as nuisance filings.

Carles: You can’t patent everything. In the EU you can’t patent a molecule for example. There was a big discussion around the patenting of genes and eventually that was ruled out. It’s hard to file a patent, it’s difficult to find the novelty and understand what’s new.

Sabine: So really, we’re back to business as usual? Nothing new to see here?

Michael: Yes, the AI is a tool just like a drafting program. It doesn’t make sense to credit the AI software with the invention.

Carles: Going back to rights – only humans should have human rights. Maybe in 100 years’ time we’ll find that AIs are autonomous/sentient enough. Then we could think of giving them rights, hence authorship. This would be an interesting debate for philosophical law.

Pedro: I like your point about AIs being sentient or not. If they are sentient they may enjoy getting the credit.

Carles: It’s really a debate between philosophers, law, and the technology crowd.

Sabine: Reading the article, it looked like the patent crowd were stumped by this.

Carles: They are not used to this. Corporations can’t be inventors, only people, so how could an AI be an inventor?

Sabine: Maybe you need the patent office to be AI powered.

Carles: If you allow this – you will increase inequality. There is the risk that AI powerhouses will own all patents.

Sabine: Alexander Reben, an artist and robotisist, recently designed a robot that could “patent everything” – with the idea that nothing could be patented anymore.

Carles: Or you could just ban all patents?

Pedro: M. Mazzucato has been discussing abolishing patents or changing the patenting system. She writes in her blog, “The consequence is to limit the diffusion of knowledge. There has been an increase in ‘patent trolling’, where firms hold patents not to develop the technology but simply to collect royalties. Here the patent has become an end in itself, disconnected from productive purposes”. “Four trends in recent years have disturbed this delicate balance to the extent that I now worry that – instead of facilitating innovation – the patent system is actually inhibiting it.”

Pedro: It is also worth reading the European Parliament’s report on Robot Law by Mady Delvaux. It generated a lot of interest because there was a discussion of robots having their own rights. Really this was introduced for liability purposes. It is relevant to this discussion as it talks about robots having rights to file patents, or responsibility in the case of autonomous cars. But some people fear that giving electronic personality to AI algorithms may lead to companies exploiting it for profit only, not for innovation, because they will develop algorithms that will hold the patent – as also underlined by Mazzucato.

Michael: Patents are a mechanism for disclosure, i.e., sharing. Banning patents doesn’t seem like it helps with equality. It’s not purely about claiming rights for oneself, it’s for trading some rights – “I’ll tell you about my cool invention that might benefit you in exchange for restrictions on who can make money from this invention”.

Carles: Assigning rights to machines is complicated.

Sabine: So, to summarise our coffee corner: don’t give rights to AIs… yet.


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