An artificial intelligence system is capable of being an “inventor” under Australian patent law, the federal court has ruled, in a decision that could have wider intellectual property implications.
University of Surrey professor Ryan Abbott has launched more than a dozen patent applications across the globe, including in the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia, on behalf of US-based Dr Stephen Thaler. They seek to have Thaler’s artificial intelligence device known as Dabus (a device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience) listed as the inventor.
The applications claimed Dabus, which is made up of artificial neural networks, invented an emergency warning light and a type of food container, among other inventions.
Several countries, including Australia, had rejected the applications, stating a human must be named the inventor. The decision by the Australian deputy commissioner of patents in February this year found that although “inventor” was not defined in the Patents Act when it was written in 1991 it would have been understood to mean natural persons – with machines being tools that could be used by inventors.
But in a federal court judgment on Friday, justice Jonathan Beach overturned the decision, and sent the matter back to the commission for reconsideration.
“In my view, an inventor as recognised under the act can be an artificial intelligence system or device,” he said.
Beach said a non-human inventor could not be the applicant of a patent, and as the owner of the system, Thaler would be the owner of any patents that would be granted on inventions by Dabus.
That was “consistent with the reality of the current technology”, the judge said. “It is consistent with the act and it is consistent with promoting innovation.”
Beach said there needed to be a consideration beyond the mere dictionary definition of “inventor” as being a human.
“I need to grapple with the underlying idea, recognising the evolving nature of patentable inventions and their creators. We are both created and create. Why cannot our own creations also create?”
Australian patent attorney Dr Mark Summerfield said Friday’s ruling would probably be appealed because it could have broad implications for patents in Australia.
“A recognition in Australian law that the term ‘inventor’ can encompass a machine would not only be well ahead of the dictionaries, it would also be ahead of any significant usage of the word in this way in society at large, or even among qualified experts in the field,” he said.
“Allowing machine inventors could have numerous consequences, both foreseeable and unforeseeable. Allowing patents for inventions churned out by tireless machines with virtually unlimited capacity, without the further exercise of any human ingenuity, judgment, or intellectual effort, may simply incentivise large corporations to build ‘patent thicket generators’ that could only serve to stifle, rather than encourage, innovation overall.”
Dabus received its first patent in South Africa this week.