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Graphs showing information about AI system as the inventor of a food container with unique properties

An algorithm received a patent for its invention.

What’s new: South Africa’s intellectual property office issued a patent that names an AI system as the inventor of a food container with unique properties, IP Watchdog reported.

How it works: South Africa’s Companies and Intellectual Property Commission named Stephen Thaler, who developed the AI system, called Dabus, as the patent owner. Thaler submitted a number of applications to authorities in several countries with help from the Artificial Inventor Project (AIP), an organization of patent attorneys that aims to promote development of algorithms that generate valuable innovations.

  • Dabus makes random associations between images, text, and other data. It ranks their novelty by comparing them to databases of existing concepts. When one of these “inventions” exceeds a threshold of novelty, Thaler reviews it, interprets its function, and writes a patent application.
  • South Africa’s patent authority did not comment on the award, leading some experts to speculate that it was granted due to an oversight.
  • Intellectual property authorities in the U.S., UK, Europe, and Australia rejected AIP’s applications, though an Australian judge recently overturned that country’s initial rejection. The AIP has applications pending in 12 other countries.

Behind the news: South Africa has issued numerous updates to its patent policy in recent years to encourage technological innovation.

Why it matters: This patent could set a significant precedent in the ongoing debate about whether and to what extent an algorithm can be considered the creator of new music, images, and other intellectual properties — a debate with potentially significant financial and legal implications.

We’re thinking: The patent system has been criticized for enabling patent trolls who file or acquire patents for the purpose of litigating rather than advancing a technology or putting a new invention to work. If AI systems can file patents at scale, the whole system might need rethinking to incentivize useful innovation.


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