There may be a time in the distant or not too distant future, when career inventors have serious trouble finding work. In parallel, patent attorneys may find their own expertise obsolete. Of course this possibility will more likely be avoided since the growth of automated inventing will be gradual, and thus these desirable careers will have time to evolve, but surely as computation becomes increasingly powerful, the entire dynamic of this field will change.
According to Robert Plotkin, invention is premised on the idea that is difficult and time consuming, and thus inventors need a financial incentive to create and also need protection for their hard earned intellectually property. Patent attorneys serve this need. However, computer processers are beginning to find a niche in the inventing field. There are different programming techniques for computers to allow them to “create” or “invent” solutions to problems; right now the most promising may be something known as evolutionary programming. This type of programming uses biological algorithms taken from nature to “evolve” a system through generations, eventually optimizing a solution to a particular problem. The physical parameters for the system must be programmed and the most promising solutions from each generation are joined or “mated” with other possible outcomes. The process can be repeated thousands or millions of times over a short period with supercomputers. Problems that used to take a team of engineers or an inventor weeks or months may take a computer a few days.
A recent example of this type of application comes from NASA. In creating an antenna for a satellite, NASA wanted a design that was within a certain size, weight and ability to operate at a specific frequency. After automating the process with a computer using genetic algorithms, they came upon a design that fit the application perfectly. It’s appearance resembles an unwound paper clip, bent in random directions. After analysis of the antenna, the scientists at NASA couldn’t figure out why it worked.
This is a telling scenario. Computers are beginning to do higher level things that we aren’t able to do. In the past, computers have executed more mundane tasked like calculations and organizing files , things we can do but have outsourced to free us up to do more meaningful things. With computers beginning to invent, the technical process of heavy math and trial and error are taken over by the machine. Of course, strong mathematical skills are still needed to program the assignment and read the outcomes, but more of the mundane aspects of inventing are left for the computer. This has the benefit of allowing the engineer or scientist more time to be creative with new problems rather than spending time with design.
On the flip side, the very idea of inventing becomes compromised. Right now, automated inventing in the industry is rather on the fringes, needing powerful computers and expert programming skills. However, as computers become more powerful and cheaper, and inventing programs become more common place, automated invention could begin to spread amongst many, if not most industries. Legal and ethical questions could arise. If inventing is no longer difficult and no longer requires much time, then should inventors have patent protection? Or should the programmers and idea people have another form of protection, albeit to a lesser degree? If some of the programs become so common place, and anyone can download them from the internet, input an idea, and kick out a new invention, then who has the incentive and the protection?
It is possible in the distant or not so distant future, that inventors and patent attorneys find their respective niches compromised because of computers. They should have ample time to evolve and find a new way to serve this field. Either way, if automated inventing becomes common place, it is sure to change the world.
*This blog was inspired by Robert Plotkin’s research and expertise on evolutionary algorithms and patent law.