An artificial intelligence system called DABUS invented two new devices, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) says only humans have the right to own patents. USPTO published the decision on Monday, putting a definitive existential answer on what separates artificial intelligence from humans. Or at least on the nature of legal creation.
The two patents were filed last year as part of the Artificial Inventor Project for a set of interlocking food containers that are easy for robots to grasp and a warning light that flashes in a distinct, difficult-to-ignore pattern. Both listed DABUS as their creator.
Up until now, USPTO has left its language fairly open, calling for “individuals” who invented products. Now the office has ruled that only “natural persons” have the right to own patents. The U.K. published a similar decision last month.
This decision might seem small-scale, but it’s likely to have far-reaching consequences for how the U.S. views intellectual property in the future.
Details, details, details — USPTO’s decision comes down to the minutiae of the language used throughout patent law.
Though some parts of the U.S.’s patent law does use abstract terms, other sections are more concrete in using language that describes only humans. For example, the pronouns “himself” and “herself” are used to refer to the patent-holder throughout, as well as words like “whoever.”
“Under current law, only natural persons may be named as an inventor in a patent application,” USPTO said in its decision.
Inventing vs owning — As MIT Technology Review notes, nobody is arguing that DABUS or other AI should be able to own patents. Rather, these groups are advocating for AI to be listed as an inventor — a small but important distinction. In this case, AI helped to solve a very particular set of problems, which is why the Artificial Inventor Project hoped it DABUS would be listed as an inventor.
Though there are obviously humans involved in the development process, it is AI that made the final product. This presents a conundrum: if no humans were involved in the product closely enough to claim inventorship, and the AI is not allowed to do so either, can the product be patented at all?
This might not be the final say — Though the U.S. patent office has made its ruling clear in this case, experts say the decision may yet be appealed. Intellectual law specialist Penny Gilbert told BBC that the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has started a consultation on the issue. WIPO is expected to continue discussions of the law in mid-May with the goal of influencing future intellectual property policy.