South Africa Awards AI-Invented Patent In a World First
South Africa’s patent office has granted the world's first patent for a creation generated by an AI inventor, DABUS, on July 28. The patent is for “a food container based on fractal geometry,” and the issuance notice was published in the July 2021 Patent Journal.
It should be noted that the country does not have a substantive patent examination system, thus the significance of the acceptance may be less than it would be in other jurisdictions; however, this development still represents an important milestone in the world of AI.
Filed on September 17, 2019, the patent application lists DABUS under the heading of "inventor," and states that the invention "was autonomously generated by an artificial intelligence."
The entity behind the invention, DABUS, "Device for Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience", is an artificial intelligence system developed by physicist Stephen Thaler, who is a leading researcher in AI and programming, and used by Professor Ryan Abbott and his team at the University of Surrey. DABUS, a "creative" machine, simulates human brainstorming to generate new ideas and inventions.
DABUS is a type of AI that is often referred to as "creativity machines" because of their ability to function freely and in complex ways, according to The Conversation. Data can be processed and critically analyzed by creativity machines, and they can learn from it perhaps akin to a child, and after this machine learning phase, the machine is able to create independently without needing humans. As a result of this process, it can solve problems that humans can't in a much faster way.
Through this process, DABUS was able to generate a food container based on fractal geometry that improves grip and heat transfer.
The legal conflict surrounding DABUS
While patent applications listing DABUS as the inventor were also filed in patent offices in some other countries, such as the U.S. and the U.K., they were unsuccessful. The England and Wales High Court dismissed Thaler's two patent applications, stating that AI is not a "natural person" and thus cannot be considered an inventor under the UK Patents Act 1977.
The European Patent Office turned down the application as well, claiming that AI systems lack legal personality and thus are unable to claim legal ownership of their output. This was mirrored in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which stated that AI does not meet the definition of “conception,” which is generally defined as a mental act performed by the inventor, according to Jurist.
However, in the aftermath of South Africa's landmark decision, Australia's Federal Court also ruled that AI systems can be legally recognized as an inventor in patent applications, making the historic finding that "the inventor can be non-human."
"It’s been more of a philosophical battle, convincing humanity that my creative neural architectures are compelling models of cognition, creativity, sentience, and consciousness," Thaler said to ABC. "The recently established fact that DABUS has created patent-worthy inventions is further evidence that the system 'walks and talks' just like a conscious human brain."