China Thrashes U.S. In Global AI Patent Race—Here’s Why That Doesn’t Mean It’s Winning The AI War

Topline

China vastly outpaces international rivals in the global race for generative AI patents, a new United Nations report revealed Thursday, leaving the United States and other nations lagging far behind as they vie for a strategic edge and leadership over the transformative technology.

China’s patents doesn’t mean it is winning the AI race, an expert told Forbes.

VCG via Getty Images

Key Facts

China has filed more than 38,000 patents for generative AI inventions since 2014, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the U.N. agency responsible for overseeing international patent recognition and other issues.

Generative artificial intelligence is AI software capable of generating outputs like text, images, video and sound in response to a prompt, and generative AI inventions include chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Anthropic’s Claude, image generators like Adobe’s Firefly and even scientific tools like protein structure AIs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, FrameDiff, and Google DeepMind, AlphaFold.

The figure, which does not account for other forms of AI such as autonomous driving, reveals China has filed more patents for inventions involving generative AI than all other countries combined, accounting for 70% of the more than 50,000 patents filed globally over the last decade.

The U.S., with nearly 6,300 patents filed since 2014, lags in a distant second place, less than one sixth of China’s total, with South Korea (4,155), Japan (3,409) and India (1,350) coming in third, fourth and fifth, respectively, followed by the U.K. (714), Germany (708), Canada (549) and Israel (311).

While sheer number of patents certainly indicate strengths in China’s capacity for research and development, Van Anh Le, an assistant professor in intellectual property law at Durham University in the U.K., told Forbes it “does not tell the whole story.”

“The quantity of patents does not necessarily reflect their quality or the impact of the innovations,” Le said, explaining that many could be of “low significance” or represent “incremental improvements rather than groundbreaking advancements.”

Crucial Quote

“In the context of AI, there is undeniable competition between China and the U.S.,” Le said, describing China as “a formidable competitor.” But patent data paints only part of the picture, Le stressed. “To get a more comprehensive understanding, we should also look at other indicators, such as start-up activity, which can signify the health of the innovation ecosystem,” as well as the rate at which patents are commercialized. Taking this broader view as it applies to AI, Le said the U.S. has a “robust innovation environment,” pointing to the many AI startup companies emerging from there.

Which Companies Have The Most Ai Patents?

Globally, Chinese giants Tencent, Ping An Insurance Group and Baidu own the most generative AI patents by far, WIPO said, each holding multiple times the number of patents than other occupants on the global top ten list. Chinese entities make up six of the top ten generative AI patent holders globally over the time covered, WIPO said, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences noteworthy as the only research organization in the top ten. IBM, coming in fifth globally, holds the most of any U.S. company.

The Top 10 Generative Ai Patent Holders Globally

  1. Tencent Holdings (2,074)
  2. Ping An Insurance Group (1,564)
  3. Baidu (1,234)
  4. Chinese Academy of Sciences (607)
  5. IBM (601)
  6. Alibaba (571)
  7. Samsung Electronics (468)
  8. Alphabet/Google (443)
  9. Bytedance (418)
  10. Microsoft (377)

What To Watch For

Generative AI only accounts for 6% of global AI patents but the number of new filings has been rapidly accelerating in recent years, WIPO said. More than a quarter of generative AI patents were filed in 2023 alone, for example, a year that accounted for nearly half of generative AI scientific publications as well. WIPO said video and image data dominate generative AI patents, with around 18,000 inventions, followed by inventions for text (13,494) and speech and music (13,480). Generative AI can be deployed across a wide range of sectors and WIPO said in the future it could help design new drugs, power customer service chatbots and improve product design and autonomous driving. The life sciences in particular appear set for a change, WIPO forecast, with the number of GenAI patents using molecule, gene and protein-based data “growing rapidly” in recent years at an average annual rate of 78% growth over the past five years.

Key Background

While generative AI has been around for years, interest in and uptake of the technology has grown rapidly. The release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT assistant in 2022 marked a particular inflection point, kick-starting a global race among companies developing and deploying AI tools. McKinsey estimates the growing generative AI economy could add up to $4.4 trillion annually in value to the global economy, meaning controlling key inventions with patents could be very lucrative. There are also strategic advantages to the technology, and global powers like the U.S. and China have made controlling it and excelling national priorities.

Contra

It isn’t just AI patents China is racing ahead with, said Le, who explained China has outperformed the U.S. when it comes to patent filings across the board for years. While the high number of patents is indicative of research capacity, high investment and technological prowess, there are also other ways to explain the trend, Le said. “Different countries have varying policies and practices regarding patents” that can distort or inflate numbers without corresponding with real-world innovation, Le explained. In China, such factors include state subsidies, tax breaks and social benefits for patent applicants, which can encourage filing to collect benefits rather than to protect genuine discoveries. Patent applications can also be driven by other motives like seeking a government job, a promotion or reputation building, Le said.

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Further Reading

ForbesAnthropic’s Claude: What To Know About ChatGPT Rival After Latest Model Trounces Industry GiantsBy Robert HartForbesDon’t Let AI Control Your Nukes, U.S. Official Urges China And RussiaBy Robert HartForbesUN Approves Global AI Rules-Here’s What To Know About The US-Led ResolutionBy Robert HartFtFour start-ups lead China’s race to match OpenAI’s ChatGPTFortuneThe one key difference between the U.S. and China in the AI arms race

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