In recent years, the intersection between intellectual property and emerging technologies — specifically artificial intelligence — has become a subject of significant discussion. And for good reason. Between 2002 and 2020, annual AI patent applications increased from 30,000 to nearly 80,000 according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Much of the recent debate, however, has centered on whether an AI algorithm should be able to successfully claim inventorship status in a patent application — which it cannot under existing U.S. law. It’s important that IP experts, policymakers, and the general public not get bogged down with this singular question to the extent that they forsake a well-rounded, long-term view of this innovative landscape.
AI is largely a product of dedicated, expensive investments in computing technology, algorithmic developments, and data. Bearing this in mind, prolonged uncertainty over patent eligibility requirements and protections casts a dark cloud over the innovation ecosystem and could stifle access to much-needed financial resources. Our country should be addressing these concerns and encouraging investment in the research, development, and application of AI. To do so requires strengthening our intellectual property laws where they relate to or are affected by AI.
Today, scientists and engineers at elite American universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are pursuing cutting-edge research in the field of AI. And as a country, incentivizing these pursuits should be a top priority given that harnessing the power of AI is the future — of the digital economy, of satellites, of personalized cancer treatments, and of any number of things not yet known. But the private sector will be hesitant to pour capital into these transformative ventures if the underlying research lacks access to IP protection.
America’s IP system — writ large — needs to be strong, reliable, and predictable. Only in this environment can innovators secure the kind of private sector investments required to keep the United States on the global forefront of AI breakthroughs. Clear guidance is needed with respect to IP laws and regulations — including for patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. Section 101, whether AI machines can be named as “inventors,” the type of protection for data used by AI systems, and more. That guidance should be given with an eye toward bolstering the innovation-promoting incentives our system was designed for.