In a landmark decision, an Australian court has set a groundbreaking precedent, deciding artificial intelligence (AI) systems can be legally recognised as an inventor in patent applications. That might not sound like a big deal, but it challenges a fundamental assumption in the law: that only human beings can be inventors. The AI machine called DABUS is an "artificial neural system" and its designs have set off a string of debates and court battles across the globe. On Friday, Australia's Federal Court made the historic finding that "the inventor can be non-human". It came just days after South Africa became the first country to defy the status quo and award a patent recognising DABUS as an inventor. AI pioneer and creator of DABUS, Stephen Thaler, and his legal team have been waging a ferocious global campaign to have DABUS recognised as an inventor for more than two years.
Patents are used to grant exclusive property rights to an inventor and prevent their discovery from being copied by others. The main requirements for a patent are that the invention must be novel, non-obvious and be useful or have an industrial application. Patents are a central part of how pharma does business. Pharma products require longer and more complex research and development (R&D) cycles than products in other industries. Consequently, companies invest significant amounts of money into their new products early on in their development.
Patent offices and courts around the world are being asked to tackle a similar question: can an artificial intelligence system qualify as an inventor for a patent? A test case making its way through several countries--from Saudi Arabia to Australia to Brazil--has spurred debate about advancements in artificial intelligence technology and questions about whether patent laws need to be revised to recognize machines as inventors. A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently ruled that, under current U.S. law, AI can't be listed as an inventor on a patent. The ruling was in line with what U.S., British, and EU patent officials have concluded. The push to recognize AI as an inventor comes from Ryan Abbott, a University of Surrey law professor, and Stephen Thaler, a computer scientist from Missouri.
What does it mean to be an inventor? In patent law, designed to protect the intellectual property of inventors, officials are used to thinking of inventors as humans, taking an "inventive step" – a new way of doing something -- not obvious to a person skilled in the same art. But last week -- in a judicial world first -- Australia's Federal Court ruled an artificial intelligence (AI) system can be named as an inventor. That judgement overturned a decision by the nation's Commissioner of Patents that meant US scientist Stephen Thaler could not patent inventions by his AI system, DABUS (Device for Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience). Thaler says DABUS independently designed a fractal-shaped container for improved grip and heat transfer, and an emergency beacon that flashes more noticeably.
In public proceedings, the Legal Board of Appeal of the EPO confirmed that under the European Patent Convention (EPC), an inventor designated in a patent application must be a human being. This was the judgement in combined cases J 8/20 and J 9/20, where the board just dismissed the applicant's appeal. Here, both the applications were made by a Missouri physicist Stephen Thaler, whose AI-system DABUS had made the inventions. Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience, or DABUS, is a computer system programmed to invent by itself. It is, basically, a swarm of disconnected neutral nets that can continuously generate thought processes and even memories that can, over time, generate new and inventive outputs independently.