Posted on 28/8/2019

Can a computer program be listed as an inventor?

A computer program has devised two potentially patentable ideas, but can it be listed as an inventor?

For the first time, a computer program has been listed as the inventor for a patent application.  This is sure to challenge the position of intellectual property offices, as currently only natural persons can be listed an inventor.  All major patent offices have adopted this practice, as it prevents corporate inventorship and ensures the devisers of the invention are listed on the patent.

The computer program, called DABUS, has devised two potentially patentable ideas from which two patents have been filed, both in technical fields outside the expertise of DABUS’ creators.  The creators of DABUS insist that it was the deviser of the inventions in both cases and is therefore the inventor.

How does a computer program generate new ideas? 

DABUS uses two co-operating neural networks, one to generate new ideas and the other to rate each idea for novelty and salience.  The networks are trained on the general knowledge of a field, and the ideas network then introduces perturbations to this knowledge to try and generate new ideas or concepts.  The perturbations are typically a relaxation of one of the parameters that are conventional in the field.  For example, a perturbation could be a challenge to the existing knowledge such as: what shape would a cup be if it didn’t have to be round or what would a self-propelled, autonomous robot look like if it did not have to have two legs that allow it to ‘walk’?

Each new idea is rated by the second network based on its predicted novelty and salience.  The ideas with the highest ratings are then reinforced by further investigation in order to support them as much as possible and then perturbed further until the network converges on what it believes is an idea with strong novelty and salience.  More information on this can be found in Stephen Thaler’s US patent on the technology.

The two patents filed with DABUS listed as the inventor include a food container and a light for attracting attention in an emergency, both of which are filed as international, UK, European and US patents.  The food container has a fractal shape which yields a high coupling strength between similar containers, improved grip for handling and improved heat transfer into and out of the container.  The light has a unique pulsing pattern which allows it to be easily identified over potentially competing attention sources.  More information on these patents and the technology can be found here.

The current position for patent offices around the world is that an invention is invented by a natural person although that position is based on the historical view that ‘people invent’, a position that is being challenged as technology expands and ‘thinking machines’ are becoming more and more common.  A machine with a mind of its own may be some way off but it is clear that technology has developed to the point where a machine, albeit one programmed to operate in a specific way, can produce new combinations, which may become commercially successful.

The concept that a machine cannot invent is rapidly changing and becoming outdated, if it is not outdated already.

If patent offices maintain their view (which is generally enshrined in legislation) that only natural persons can be inventors, it raises the question of who should be listed as inventor in the case of these two inventions as the natural persons who owned or operated DABUS did not take part in devising the inventions.

In order to recognise DABUS as the inventor, it the legislation countries that only allow natural persons to be names would have to be changed which could also open the door to the corporate inventorship that patent offices have been trying to avoid.

In any case, it seems refusal to grant a patent on the grounds that AI devised the invention could unnecessarily stifle innovation and damage economic output.

A decision on whether inventorship should be opened to artificial intelligence systems could also affect other intellectual property rights such as authorship in copyright, which is also limited to natural persons.


The generation of new ideas by artificial intelligence (AI) has been a topic of continued research for some time and offers the potential to dramatically increase innovation in a wide range of industries.  It was therefore a matter of time before patent offices had to consider how patents devised by an AI would be handled.  These filed patent applications are placing the question of who or what is an inventor directly before the patent offices.

It is an easy way out to simply deny that an artificial intelligence is eligible to be an inventor under the current legislation, but will be very interesting to see how these applications progress and if refused, the rationale for doing so.  Too often, the legislation lags behind the state of the technology and the early proponents of new thinking suffer because of it.

Perhaps a more open position in relation to legislation in the area of new technologies should be developed to get ahead of the technology rather than trying to catch up to it.

Perhaps we should ask DABUS to get trained on the current legislative model and introduce a perturbation or two.

If you have any questions about intellectual property please get in touch and speak to one of our team.

Wilson Gunn