Machine Learning Fuels U.S. Patent Surge
Technology innovators intensified efforts over the last year to secure intellectual property rights on transformative technologies ranging from AI to blockchain platforms. While IBM maintained its overwhelming lead in U.S. patent awards, Chinese manufacturers continue to make steady progress gaining control of IP while the growth rate for patent awards in machine learning soared.
An annual patent survey released by IFI Claims Patent Services found that machine-learning patent applications are among the fastest growing categories. Larry Cady, a senior analyst with IFI, estimates the patent category that includes machine learning and neural networks grew at a 34 percent annual rate over the last five years. "I don't see that trend slowing," Cady added in an interview.
The patent firm's estimates of the fastest growing technologies are based on patent applications rather than actual awards of utility patents. As it has for the past quarter century, IBM (NYSE: IBM) again led the IP chase in 2017 with more than 9,000 U.S. patent awards on technologies such as speech recognition and distributed ledgers. According to an annual survey, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued just over 320,000 utility grants last year—a record.
Among the biggest gainers in the annual patent survey released by IFI Claims on Tuesday (Jan. 9) were: Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), which climbed into the top 50 patent holders for the first time; Shenzhen China Star Optoelectronics Technology, up 22 spots in the rankings; and BOE Technology Group, the Chinese display maker, which moved up 19 slots as the 21st largest patent holder in 2017.
Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) moved up two spots to fourth place in the annual rankings with 3,023 U.S. patent awards, according to IFI Claims. Cady said most of the chipmaker's patents were related to general purpose and mobile computing.
Facebook cracked the patent firm's list of the top 50 patent assignees largely on the strength of machine learning and other AI-related patents. IFI Claims said Facebook's patent total has jumped 50 percent since 2016.
While patent leader IBM disclosed several AI related patents this week covering areas like speech recognition and self-driving vehicles, Cady noted it is difficult to determine specific applications based on patent awards. For example, machine-learning patents fall under a general category, "Computer Systems Based on Specific Computational Models."
One indicator of where IBM and other large patent holders are headed is a machine-learning category related to training predictive models. IBM led the category with 654 patent applications, followed by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Facebook (see chart).
Nevertheless, Cady added, "You'd like to see the [specific] application."
Just behind machine learning on the IFI Claims list of fastest growing technologies is autonomous vehicles, an application that is expected to make broad use of machine learning capabilities. The analyst estimates the annual growth rate for patent applications is growing at 27 percent. Hence, automakers such as Ford (NYSE: F) and Toyota (NYSE: TM) were among the leading patent applicants along with IBM.
IBM disclosed this week that one of its self-driving vehicle patents uses machine learning to transfer control of an autonomous vehicle between a passenger and the onboard systems in emergency situations.