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Can AI improve process at the U.S. patent office?

Pity the patent examiner. Millions of patent applications flood the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) each year and it is the task of the patent examiner to see if the application has previously been applied for and whether it adds to the total of human knowledge.

This is a tough duty, but as with many difficult jobs in the past 150 years, officials are looking to machines to help shoulder the burden.

Specifically, the USPTO is looking to add artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to aid the patent process.

Too large for any human

When you apply for a patent, a patent examiner looks for "prior art," or any information that exists to support the patent's claim that it is novel and a non-obvious new entry into the world.

It's a job too large for any human being. That's why the USPTO is looking to advance toward AI. In a speech in mid-November, USPTO director Andrei Iancu said the office has developed a new program that uses AI to conduct a "federated search" across all patents, publications, non-patent literature and images. This gives the patent examiner a volume of data that, while still large, is at least manageable.

The USPTO is also looking at quantum computing, machine learning, and natural language processing that doesn't necessarily require a full IT retrofit. The office is also looking for widgets or plugins that can augment current search capabilities.

Language of the inventor

One specific problem that can be targeted by AI is the ever-changing language of the inventor. Not only do inventors develop new programs and gadgets, but they develop new ways to describe those programs and gadgets.

When working with new words, keyword searches become useless. The USPTO hopes AI can keep patent examiners on top of new lexicon while maintaining speed and integrity.

Director Iancu said one possibility is mining synonyms with the help of crowd-sourcing. He said this could promote consistent searches and bring any prior art that exists in disparate databases.

The path to patent approval can be lengthy and complex. When dealing with patent law, it's imperative that you hire knowledgeable legal counsel to protect your interests.

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