I recently had the opportunity to read Robert Plotkin’s new book, Genie in the Machine. Patent attorneys, inventors and current patent laws have long considered “invention” to be an activity that is performed by humans. For example, Section 101 of the U.S. Patent Act states:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor.
Section 115 of the Patent Act states:
The applicant shall make oath that he believes himself to be the original and first inventor of the process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or improvement thereof, for which he solicits a patent.
In The Genie in the Machine, Plotkin asks how patent laws may treat an invention that is conceived by a computer, if the human operator merely presents the computer with a problem to be solved. In other words, who is the inventor — and should we award a patent to the invention — if the human merely presents a “wish”, and the computer generates the invention based on that wish?
The new book explores developing technologies — such as Stephen Thaler’s “Creativity Machine” — that automate many of the activities that are normally associated with invention. It raises interesting questions about our concept of invention, and how that concept may change in the future.