Sunday, November 08, 2015

How Soon Might Humans Be Replaced At Work?

#CIPAai An interesting debate on Artificial Intelligence took place at the Science Museum this week, sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents. When will humans be replaced by computers in any given job?

As this was the professional body for Patent Agents, they decided to pick an example close to their hearts. The specific motion being debated was that a patent would be filed and granted without human intervention within the next 25 years. The motion was passed roughly 80-60.

At first sight, this debate appeared to be an exercise in technological forecasting. When would AI be capable of creating new inventions and correctly drafting the patent application? And when would AI be capable of evaluating a patent application, carrying out the necessary searches, and granting a patent. Is this the kind of thing we should expect when the much vaunted Singularity (predicted from around 2040 onwards) occurs?

Speaking for the motion, Calum Chase and Chrissie Lightfoot were enthusiastic about the technological opportunities of AI. They pointed out the incredible feats that were already achieved as a result of machine learning, including some surprisingly creative solutions to technical problems.

Speaking against the motion, Nigel Hanley and Ilya Kazi acknowledged the great contribution of computer intelligence to support the patent agent and patent examiner, but were sceptical that anyone would trust a computer with such an important task as filing and granting patents. Nigel Hanley pointed out the limitations of internet search, which is of course designed to find things that other people have already found. (As A.A. Milne put it, Thinking With The Majority.)

The motion only required that a single patent be filed and granted without human intervention. It didn't need to be a particularly complicated one. But even to grant a single patent without human intervention would require a change in the law, presumably agreed internationally. (As it happens, my late father Kenneth Veryard was involved in the development of European Patent Law around 25 years ago, so I am aware of the time and painstaking effort required to achieve such international agreements.)

But this reframes the debate: from a technological one about the future capability of computers, to a sociopolitical one about the possibility of institutional change. Even if some algorithm were good enough to compete with humans, at least for some routine patent matters, the question is whether politicians would be willing to entrust these matters to an algorithm.

There are also strange questions of ownership and rights. Examples of computer intelligence always seem to come back to the usual suspects - Google, IBM Watson, and their ilk. If the creativity comes from the large computer networks run by these companies, then the patents will belong to these corporations. When Thomas Watson said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers", he wasn't talking about billions of laptops or trillions of internet-enabled things, but the very much smaller number of major computer networks capable of controlling everything else.

Can we realistically expect AI to take over one small area of patent law without taking over the much larger challenge of cleaning up legislation? After all, a genuine superintelligence might well come up with a much better basis for promoting innovation and protecting the interests of inventors than a few ancient principles of patent law.

But perhaps here's the killer argument. As the volume of patent applications increases, the cost of processing them all by hand becomes prohibitive. So governments could be tempted by the cost-savings offered by a clever algorithm. Even though governments have a very bad track record at realising cost savings from IT projects, politicians can often be persuaded to think it will be different this time.

So even if AI patent activity turns out not to be as good as when humans do it, and even if it subsequently results in a lot of seriously expensive litigation, it could seem a lot cheaper in the short-term.


Steven Johnson, Superintelligence Now (How We Get To Next, 28 October 2015)

James Nurton, Could a computer do your job (Managing IP, 3 November 2015)

Wikipedia: Technological Singularity

Related Posts

The End of Google (June 2006)


For the potential ramifications of robotic legal assistants, see Remus, Dana and Levy, Frank S., Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law (December 30, 2015). Available at SSRN: or Reported by Aviva Rutkin, Artificial intelligence could make lawyers more risk averse (New Scientist 27 January 2016).

See also Ryan Abbott, I Think, Therefore I Invent: Creative Computers and the Future of Patent Law (Boston College Law Review, Vol 57 Issue 4, September 2016). Reported in Iain Thompson, AI software should be able to register its own patents, law prof argues (The Register, 17 October 2016)

updated 19 October 2016

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