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Could a boom in AI patents point to a ‘quantum leap' in tech?

05 Feb 2019

The “upsurge” in patent applications for devices and machines powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the last five years, suggests that it could soon revolutionise all areas of daily life far beyond the tech world, a UN report suggests.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) Technology Trends report, 50% of all patents for AI – the replication of human intelligence by machines for use in industries such as transport and healthcare, for instance – have been published since 2013, adding up to more than 170,000 different patented ideas.

This followed on from an initial boom in AI scientific publications, which began in 2001.

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry told journalists in Geneva the surge in patenting was “striking”, noting that AI research began in the 1950s. “But there has been a quantum leap since about 2013, so we’re dealing with what is happening right now in a very fast-moving field,” he insisted.

‘Machine learning’ is the dominant AI application

By number, patent applications for machine learning, indicate that this is currently the dominant application of AI; think of apps that include ride-sharing services to minimise detours.

The fastest-growing AI area is “deep learning”, however, which is used in speech recognition.

This saw a 175% annual increase in patent applications from 2013 to 2016, far in excess of the 33% average for all patents in the same period.

US and China dominate so far

The United States and China dominate the field of patent application, although only a fraction of China’s patents is filed abroad. US-based tech giant IBM leads by a number of patent applications (8,290), followed by Microsoft (5,930).

Japan’s Toshiba has the next highest patent tally (5,223), ahead of South Korea’s Samsung (5,102) and Japan’s NEC Group (4,406).

China’s increasingly important role in the sector is also illustrated by the fact that Chinese organisations make up 17 of the top 20 academic players in AI patenting, as well as 10 of the top 20 in AI-related scientific publications.

Biggest AI opportunities lie outside the software industry

Faced with this backing, it’s very difficult for other countries, even those with great education, to compete with the business, engineering and investing talent of China and the US, AI expert and CEO of Landing AI and deeplearning.ai, Andrew Ng, notes, adding that the biggest untapped opportunities lie outside the software industry, in areas including agriculture, healthcare and manufacturing.