Artificial Intelligence Cannot Be Inventors, US Patent Office Rules

An AI system called DABUS "invented" two new devices, but the USPTO says only humans can do that.
Toy robots.
Image credit: Jeff via Flickr

On Monday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published a decision that claims artificial intelligences cannot be inventors. Only “natural persons” currently have the right to get a patent.

Last year, two relatively mundane patents—one for a shape-shifting food container and another for an emergency flashlight—posed an existential question for international patent regulations around the world: Does an inventor have to be a human?


These two inventions were the work of DABUS, an artificial intelligence system created by physicist and AI researcher Stephen Thaler. Now, the USPTO has decided that DABUS and any other AI cannot be listed as an inventor on a patent filing.

Until now, US patent law was vague about whether machines could invent, referring to “individuals” as eligible inventors. Thaler, along with a group of patent law experts, argued that because Thaler didn't have any expertise in containers or flashlights, and didn't help DABUS make the inventions, it wouldn't be right for him to be listed as the inventor.

"If I teach my Ph.D. student that and they go on to make a final complex idea, that doesn’t make me an inventor on their patent, so it shouldn’t with a machine," Ryan Abbott, a law and health-sciences professor at the University of Surrey in the UK who led the group of legal experts in the AI patent project, told the Wall Street Journal last year.

In the UK, the DABUS patents were rejected under patent laws there that forbid non-natural persons from inventing. With this week's announcement, the US has followed suit, stating that "only natural persons may be named as an inventor in a patent application."

The DABUS case brings up similar questions of ownership and non-human rights—and even what makes us human, and what makes other entities not—as that infamous monkey-selfie copyright case, where PETA tried to say a monkey could own the rights to a selfie. Ultimately, under regulations from the U.S. Copyright Office that only photographs taken by humans can be copyrighted, PETA's case was dismissed.