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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.

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Frequently-Asked Questions About
The Genie in the Machine

What is "artificial invention"?

Artificial invention is the use of computers to automatically design new products – to do the work that only human inventors could perform until now.  Just as the assembly line automated manufacturing in the Industrial Age, artificial invention technology is automating inventing in the coming Artificial Invention Age.

What are some real-world examples of "artificial inventions"?

  • An antenna that is now on a NASA space mission.
  • An anticoagulant drug that is now in pre-clinical trials.
  • The "cross-bristle" feature of the original Oral-B CrossAction tootbrush.
  • An aerodynamic nosecone for the Japanese bullet train.

What is the "genie" in The Genie in the Machine?

The genie is a computer equipped with artificial invention software, which enables the computer to automatically transform an inventor’s abstract description of the problem he wants a new machine to perform – the “wish” – into a design for a machine that solves the problem – the “wish come true.”  The Genie in the Machine documents a wide variety of technologies that behave like genies in this way.

Why did you write The Genie in the Machine?

First, I realized that we were in the midst of a revolution in how we invent new machines, but that few people knew this revolution was underway, and I wanted to spread the word. Second, I realized that the transition from old-fashioned manual inventing to computerized automated inventing had radical implications for patent law – the “law of invention” – and that we need to begin to reform patent law now to reflect this new way of inventing. Third, I saw that automated inventing is significantly reducing the time, cost, and risk involved in creating new products, and that both creators and consumers of such products could benefit from understanding how automated inventing works.

Who should read The Genie in the Machine?

Several groups of people will benefit from reading The Genie in the Machine:

  • Inventors, who will learn how to leverage artificial invention technology to boost their inventive abilities and become better inventors.
  • High-tech businesspeople, who will learn how to evolve their business strategies to take advantage of artificial invention technology’s ability to design new products more quickly, inexpensively, and reliably.
  • Consumers, who will learn how to leverage artificial invention technology to become inventors themselves.
  • Patent lawyers, judges, and legislators, who will learn how to update patent law and the administration of the patent system to reflect how artificial invention technology is changing the nature of inventing.

What do scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and other inventors need to know about artificial invention?

Yesterday’s inventors focused their energies on becoming expert at designing the physical details of new products. Artificial invention technology is rapidly automating this task. Therefore, inventors who want to avoid being made obsolete need to shift their focus to learning how to identify the problem that a new product needs to solve, and how to describe that problem in a language that artificial invention technology can understand. They will need to become more like Henry Ford and less like an automotive engineer.

What do businesspeople need to know about artificial invention?

As artificial invention technology automates the process of designing new products, it will become increasingly difficult for businesses to obtain a competitive advantage merely by acquiring skill in the details of product design. Forward-thinking businesses will shift their focus to acquiring skill in:

  • using artificial invention technology to design new products;
  • identifying the needs of their customers accurately and efficiently; and
  • translating those needs into a language that artificial invention technology can understand.

What do patent lawyers need to know about artificial invention?

Patent law reflects the manual inventive processes that inventors have used throughout the ages. The law, therefore, is already starting to break down in the face of automated inventing. We see this as patent law continues to grapple with computer software – the earliest kind of automated invention (programmers write code which a computer translates automatically into working software). The Genie in the Machine explains how the current problems with software patents can be understood as symptoms of the law’s failure to accommodate artificial invention technology more generally, and how we can reform patent law to address all of these problems so that the law continues to promote innovation in the Artificial Invention Age.

What do consumers need to know about artificial invention?

Today’s consumers are not content to be passive recipients of the products they buy. They want to tinker with and improve their PCs, iPods, and Xboxes. The Internet now enables such “prosumers” to collaborate with each other and share their designs instantly and across the globe. Three-dimensional desktop printers that can automatically manufacture products at the touch of a button are quickly becoming as affordable as yesterday’s laser printers. Combine these developments with rapidly-improving artificial invention technology, and tomorrow’s amateur home consumer will have the R&D capability of today’s mega-corporations.

Are computers going to make human inventors obsolete?

Not if inventors learn how to leverage artificial invention technology to boost their inventive skills, just as yesterday’s inventors learned how to use slide-rules, calculators, and eventually CAD software to automatically perform increasingly high-level aspects of the inventive process for them. Inventors who fail to update their skills risk being replaced by software that can not only invent more quickly and inexpensively than human inventors, but which often blows past the blindspots and biases that inhibit human inventors from pursuing fruitful but unconventional design possibilities.

Is computer-automated inventing going to make patent law obsolete?

Not if we begin to reform patent law now. Although artificial invention technology is automating the physical design of products, we still need human inventors to create new artificial invention software and to instruct existing artificial invention software to solve today’s pressing technological problems. All of this requires significant technical skill, and as long as we need people with such skill to innovate, we will need patent law to encourage and protect the results of such innovation. The rules of patent law, however, need to be updated in light of invention automation, and The Genie in the Machine lays out a detailed roadmap for such legal reform.