Tech industry stuck over patent problems with AI algorithms


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Aug 17, 2014
The question of whether AI-generated outputs can be patented is impacting how technology companies can protect their intellectual property.

Some of the most hyped up AI technologies are systems that can produce surprisingly creative outputs. Uncanny poems, short stories, and striking digital art have all been generated by machines. The human effort required to initiate these processes are often trivial: a few clicks or typing a text description can guide the machine towards producing something useful.

Similar generative AI models are also being applied in scientific and technological applications. Machine learning algorithms can, for example, spit out molecule combinations in the hunt for new drugs, map out schematics for novel chip designs, and even write code.

Under current US laws, intellectual property is only recognized and protected if it is created by "natural persons". Humans build these models but, after training, their outputs are often automatically generated with little assistance. Which raises the question of whether the human developer of an AI system should be considered the inventor, or if the machine can claim the credit? The question is also a legal puzzler: is it permissible to patent chemical compounds, or software created by these systems?

Laura Sheridan, senior patent counsel at Google, asked the US Patent and Trademark Office for guidance on the issue. She said Google had filed multiple patents describing a machine-learning technique used internally to automatically design and map out components in the company's custom AI accelerator TPU chips currently used in its servers.

"We have filed patent applications on the novel machine learning models. As for the floor plans themselves generated by the models, we have not pursued patents on these," she said at the inaugural meeting of the AI and Emerging Technologies (ET) Partnership Series held by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

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