Robot Patent Examiner Army a Long Way Off

In some not-The Onion news, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu has confirmed that robots won’t become patent examiners any time soon.

The intellectual property desk jockeys’ jobs are safe for now, lancu said at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual conference in Boston June 4.

To be fair, Iancu didn’t raise the issue sua sponte; he was replying to a question from the audience at a conference plenary IP session. The questioner reported that the head of an unnamed country’s patent office had concluded patent examinations would be taken over by artificial intelligence within 15 years. He asked if Iancu thought that was possible or desirable.

“[We] hear that humans are going to be replaced by robots every day, and we’ve been hearing that for the past 50 years,” he joked. “There always seems to be a 15- to 20-year horizon.”

But no, he doesn’t see robots plowing through patent applications in the near future. It’s not as easy as playing chess.

“In the end I don’t think it’s likely 15 years from now,” Iancu said. “Patent law is very difficult and judgment-related. It is full of close calls.”

However, Iancu did say in all seriousness that PTO believes artificial intelligence likely can help with searching for prior art—existing patents and publications that can show whether a claimed invention already exists or is obvious.

“We actually are actively working on that. We have a task force inside the PTO that is working on it on a daily basis,” Iancu told me after his talk. “It’s a long-term project. The technology seems to be on its way, but I’m not sure it’s quite there yet. We’re looking. But I’m hopeful it is something that can be addressed.”

Examiners have a heavy caseload, so they’d likely welcome any prior art search assistance. Better searches would better inform decisions on whether to grant or deny patent applications—but those decisions will continue to be made by humans, not robots.

Read more on what Iancu had to say here.

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