The future of innovation and patent processes

This article is part of the ‘Think Further’ series sponsored by Fred Alger Management. For more ‘Think Further’ content, please visit

Automation is the next big thing. Many industry leaders including Bill Gates and Elon Musk have talked about how automation is going to fundamentally change our lives in the not so distant future. Typically, when people talk about automation, they refer to jobs that require a lower end of skill set. However, automation is going to affect the innovation and the patent process as well. Innovation falls under the higher end of the skill set.

The structured invention generation process that most inventors and companies use involves following steps.

  • First, inventors come up with an idea to solve a problem or improve existing solutions.
  • Then, a prior-art search is performed to identify references which disclose similar content as the idea developed by the inventors.
  • Next, the inventors refine their idea based on the identified references, such that the revised idea is sufficiently differentiated from the identified references.
  • This process may be repeated as many times as required

It is easy to automate these steps, such that a computer is able to perform them.  In the book “The Genie in the Machine”, patent attorney and author, Robert Plotkin describes how computers are automating the process of inventing. Specialized Software can automatically generate innovative designs. For example, they have helped design cross-bristles for the Oral-B toothbrush and even antennas for NASA’s space mission. Robert Plotkin calls them “Artificial Inventions”.

Further, the patent writing process is also being automated. There are many tools available in the market that reduce the patent attorney’s effort by up to 50%. They do so, essentially by automating some of the tasks. A patent document is a techno-legal document. One of the main sections of a patent document is the claims section. The claims of a patent define the exact features that are protected by the patent. Already, we have software available in the market that can generate massive amounts of variants of patent claims drafted by a human. This software combines human expertise with computational linguistics. The software obtains synonyms, hyponyms and heteronyms of various terms used in the claims drafted by a human. It also mines for similar terms in the patent databases. Then it uses the similar terms to create variants of the claims drafted by a human. These machine generated claim variants can encapsulate additional features that may be ignored by a human. These claim variants can then be included in a patent application, which will help to increase the scope of the patented invention. Alternatively, they can be published and made available to the public, so that no one else can patent the additional features. This helps the patent owner create a wider freedom to operate space around a patent.

Therefore, we are moving towards a scenario, where software will be able to automatically generate inventions and then draft, file and prosecute patents as well. The software can keep on innovating 24X7, so they might even make it impossible for humans to invent anything. This not only shakes the bedrock on which the whole patent system has been built upon, it potentially also shakes the bedrock on which human civilization has grown until now.
References:; The Genie in the Machine: How Computer-automated Inventing is Revolutionizing Law and Business (Stanford Law Books), 20 Apr 2009 by Robert Plotkin