South Africa issues first patent listing AI as inventor

South Africa has become the first country to award a patent that names an artificial intelligence as its inventor and the AI’s owner as the patent’s owner.

The patent was secured by University of Surrey professor Ryan Abbott and his team, who have been at odds with patent offices around the world for years over the need to recognise artificial intelligences as inventors.

Abbott was representing Dr Stephen Thaler, creator of an artificial neural system named Dabus (‘device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience’), which Thaler claims is the sole inventor of a food container that improves grip and heat transfer.

Abbott and his team have filed patents listing Dabus as the inventor in more than ten jurisdictions since 2018, including in the UK, Europe and the US. The High Court in England and Wales last year sided with the UK Intellectual Property Office in refusing the applications, accepting that while Dabus created the inventions, it cannot be granted a patent on the grounds that it isn’t a ‘natural person’. The European Patent Office and the US Patent and Trademark Office objected on the same grounds, with Abbott’s team appealing.

Professor Adrian Hilton, director of the institute for people-centred AI at the University of Surrey in the UK, said the world was “moving from an age in which invention was the preserve of people to an era where machines are capable of realising the inventive step”.

Abbott argues that the status quo is no longer fit for purpose and could put investment in AI at risk. Speaking to The Times, he said that naming the creator of the AI system as the inventor was legally risky, as they would not have substantially contributed to what the AI had created and would therefore be breaking patent law.

He also pointed to the increasing use of AI in R&D to discover new drug compounds and repurpose drugs. In such cases, he said, there may an invention that qualifies for a patent but not a person who qualifies as an inventor and if that means that a patent won’t be granted, it “says to companies that are investing in AI, like DeepMind or Siemens or Novartis, you can’t use AI in these areas”.

Wecloming the South Africa decision, he told GLP: “This outcome represents an understanding of the importance of encouraging people to make, develop and use AI to generate socially valuable innovation. We hope it will serve as an example to the rest of the world as different jurisdictions think through how best to encourage the use of artificial intelligence to generate human benefits.”

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Qiana Pekar