The patentability of AI-based inventions

Former US President Abraham Lincoln once called the patent system one of the three greatest advances in human history and for more than 200 years patents have promoted innovation, protected human creativity and driven economic progress.

However, the current version of the US Patents Act was adopted in 1952. This was a time before the term Artificial Intelligence (AI) had been coined, and where the idea that machines would one day be able to create independently was unimaginable, except maybe to a few science fiction novelists.

The vast increase in computing power in the decades since, and the amount of data we produce, has enabled the development of many different applications using AI. Indeed the development has progressed to a stage where AI applications have now become creators themselves by learning from the data they are given, and coming up with novel solutions to problems facing humanity.

Naturally the humans behind these AI applications still want to profit from their work, and more than 340.000 patent applications mentioning AI has been made since 1952.

The US legislation, and that of most other countries1,doesn’t recognise inventions made by a computer, stating instead that the inventor has to be an individual. This has created legal tension in the field, and a 2014 US Supreme Court ruling against the patentability of abstract ideas has affected the AI industry, as software or “computer-implemented inventions” often gets characterised as such.

Patent legislation is meant to promote creativity and progress, but in the case of AI it is now doing the exact opposite and stiffling it instead, according to researchers like Ryan Abbott, a professor of law and health sciences at the University of Surrey. Abbott suggests that we need to change the law and allow creative computers to be considered inventors.

That leaves one big question: Are we as humans ready to assign intellectual property rights to a machine, share our currently exclusive “right” to creative thinking, and thus make AI-based inventions truly patentable? Or, are Sci-Fi doomsday scenarios of sentient machines taking over the world still too deeply entrenched in our consciousness?

(1) The Chinese legislation is the major exception, calling for a strengthened protection of intellectual property in the field of AI, as well as improving “patent protection and standardization of interactive support mechanism to promote the innovation of AI intellectual property rights.”


Are second referendums really “undemocratic”?

As Brexit draws ever nearer, and Theresa May desperately tries to convince parliament to vote for her EU deal, the rhetoric grows ever sharper. On 14 January, in a speech given in Stoke on Trent, May said that if the MPs failed to implement the plan, then people’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer “catastrophic” harm. She further stated that the alternative scenario of no Brexit would be a “subversion of the democratic process.”

In other words, May believes that it would be undemocratic to hold a second referendum to gauge if people still feel the same way about leaving the EU, now that they’ve seen what the consequences could be. So one referendum is good, but a second referendum is undemocratic and unworthy of the United Kingdom’s proud democratic traditions, according to May.

However, by stating that a second referendum is undemocratic, May also implies that countries like Ireland and Denmark are undemocratic. In 1993, Denmark held a second referendum on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Ireland has done it twice, with the Nice and Lisbon Treaties.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that May are happy to accuse Ireland of being less democratic than the UK for a minute.. I’ll just add that both Denmark and Ireland ranks higher than the UK in the EIU Democracy Index. Denmark is ranked 5th most democratic country in the world and Ireland a joint 6th. For comparison, the UK is ranked outside the Top 10 as no. 14.

So with regards to the claim that a failure to implement her Brexit deal would cause “catastrophic” harm to people’s faith in their politicians, I would argue that the damage has already been done.


Is single-use plastic really the root of all evil?

In 2017, the BBC programme Blue Planet ll opened a lot of eyes to the effects of plastic in marine environments. As a consequence, single use plastic has for many people become a symbol of all that is unsustainable and wrong with how we treat our environment. But, is single-use plastic really the root of all evil, or are there other potentially bigger problems that it can help us solve?

The movement against single-use plastic has many different parts. One of them aims to reduce food packaging. A number of organisations advocate for consumers to buy unwrapped fruits and vegetables, to buy in bulk instead of smaller tubs and packages, and to buy fresh fruit and greens instead of frozen or tinned products. All this in the hopes of reducing the plastic packaging needed, and to create less waste that might end up in the ocean. There are even those who have encouraged people to remove packaging from their groceries before leaving the shop as a form of civil protest; to demonstrate to the stores and manufacturers that we want less packaging, not more.

Reduced packaging increases food waste
The problem with these campaigns are that a lot of the advice aimed at reducing food packaging, ends up increasing food waste instead. We buy a large bag of salad instead of two smaller ones to save on packaging, and then we don’t manage to finish it before it goes off. We buy unwrapped fruit and vegetables that have been shuffled around by supermarket staff (and prodded and poked by other customers in the shop), and therefore goes off sooner than we expected; so again we don’t manage to eat it all before we have to throw it away. Food waste occurs throughout the production chain, but a large part of it comes after the product is bought by the consumer. A comparative study found that in both the UK and the US we throw away about 25 percent of the food we buy.

How do we then square that circle? Do we waste food, or create waste by protecting our fresh food better? And of the two issues, which is most pressing when we look at the bigger picture?

The bigger picture
The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) published a report in 2011, estimating that each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Other estimates are even higher; some say up to 50 percent. This means that we are no longer able to produce enough food to feed all seven billion people on our planet. Consequently, around 1 billion regularly starve. We also continue to burn forests and drain wetlands to create enough arable land for this inefficient food production, thereby creating a whole different set of environmental issues.

Can we make plastic more of a non-issue?
Is it therefore possible to create a scenario where plastic bottles and other forms of packaging is used to prevent and reduce food waste, but doesn’t end up as an environmental catastrophe? The answer is yes, there are other options than to dump it in a river; or even a landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose.

Altering consumer behaviour
One of the most common items seen in both rivers and oceans are plastic bottles and drinks cans. Efficient deposit schemes can ensure that drinks bottles and cans are recycled (or even re-used) instead of ending up in the sea and other places where they don’t belong. Several countries in Europe have such schemes already. In Germany such a system has existed for many years, and the recycling percentage is 97%. The equivalent number in the UK is at present 43%, according to The Guardian, but the British government has finally seen the light and proposed a deposit scheme in England earlier this year.

Germany has had great success with its recycling deposit scheme. Surely other countries can follow suit?

Turning waste into energy
It is also possible to burn plastic (and other) waste in in specialised power plants, where waste-to-energy incinerators create electricity and heating. It does create a certain amount of CO2, but burning one tonne of waste creates only a quarter of the CO2 burning a tonne of oil would. The plants are equipped with filters so toxins and potential pollutants don’t get discharged into the atmosphere. Denmark has such a system, and it works;  96% of all plastic waste in Denmark is either recycled or burned to create energy. In the UK, only 31% of plastic is currently recycled and no nationwide system exists to burn household rubbish.

In my opinion, we should therefore be careful not to get caught up in focusing solely on reducing plastic use at all costs, we need to look at the bigger picture. With proper recycling systems that make it easy for customers to sort their waste, deposit schemes and ways of turning waste into energy; single-use plastic need not continue to be the same huge problem it is today.  I am not saying we shouldn’t try and reduce the use of plastic, I just believe it will be counterproductive if we focus too narrowly, and in the process potentially increase other problems like hunger and biodiversity loss.


The ethics of NGOs and what happens when it fails

Big NGOs like Greenpeace can have enormous impact on people’s perceptions of environmental issues. Their campaign against genetically modified foods is a good example. However, when they use that influence to further their own agenda, rather than the public good, it can have very serious consequences.

Credit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA/NewscomCredit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA/Newscom

Businesses all over the world are subjected to a multitude of legislation regulating their activities. This happens to ensure that human health and the environment are not harmed during their efforts to make money. Society tries to keep a lid on dubious claims about products and activities with the threat of litigation or fines. What happens however, when the dubious activities are carried out by non-profit organisations?

Protectors of civil society
NGOs have been instrumental in building up civil society in many countries, protecting rights and promoting progress. Accordingly, the regulations impacting these organisations are designed to facilitate and support, not to make judgement about their value or work. Under US law there is very little restriction on the freedom of expression and the US Government does not interfere with how NGOs accomplish their purposes. EU regulations state that NGOs are self-governing bodies, not subject to direction by public authorities.

So what happens when NGOs overstep ethical boundaries, and harm both human health and the environment, while carrying out their activities?

Greenpeace and GMOs
Greenpeace is one of the most influential environmental NGOs in the world. It has a code of ethics, which states that it is “committed to the highest possible standards of ethical, moral and legal business conduct”. The organisation is also a founding member of the International NGO Accountability Charter.

One of Greenpeace’s most prominent and longstanding campaigns is its efforts to get genetically modified (GM) crops banned worldwide. It claims that genetic engineering is a threat to the environment and human health. Additionally, its website states that GM crops should not be released into the environment since there’s not an adequate scientific understanding of their potential impact.

Greenpeace has been very successful in this campaign. In 2015 the EU introduced legislation with the aim of permitting individual member states and regions to ban cultivation of GM crops. More than half of the 28 members have opted to do so.

Ignoring the evidence
The problem is that Greenpeace is lying when it says the understanding of genetic engineering is extremely limited; and that we do not know the long term effects of releasing these organisms into the environment and into the market for food and animal feed.

The US Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report earlier this year on the development, use and effects of genetically engineered organisms. They reviewed scientific evidence accumulated over the last two decades and examined almost 900 publications on the subject. The conclusion is clear: No substantiated evidence regarding the difference between GM crops and conventional crops.

The report stresses that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not products in themselves, but are outcomes of processes by which scientists are trying to achieve certain characteristics in new crop varieties, exactly like conventional plant breeders do. In other words, all plants and crops we eat have been genetically modified for thousands of years; ever since the first farmers began selecting and breeding the plants giving them the best yields and the desired taste.

Golden Rice
Greenpeace is ignoring these facts while very skilfully manipulating the media and playing on people’s fears of a new technology they don’t understand. In Europe and North America this might not be a problem, because we can afford to choose what we eat. In poorer parts of the world however, where they do not have this luxury, it might cost people their health and even their lives.

More than 100 Nobel Prize winners have recently signed an open letter asking Greenpeace to stop their efforts to block GM crops. They single out Golden Rice, a crop previously labelled as “environmentally irresponsible and risky to human health” by Greenpeace. Golden Rice contains an artificially inserted gene which boosts the level of vitamin A rich beta-carotene. The World Health Organisation estimates that a quarter of a billion people in developing nations suffer from vitamin A deficiency. This causes two million preventable deaths a year and half a million cases of childhood blindness. This is a problem that Golden Rice could help rectify.

With good intentions?
Is it acceptable to willfully ignore scientific evidence and promote your cause, even if it harms people’s lives, as long as you are a non-profit organisation? Is it OK to manipulate the truth, as long as your intentions are good? Or, should NGOs be regulated, held accountable and put under the same expectations for ethical behaviour as for-profit organisations? I say yes, because the harm you can do doesn’t depend on how much profit you make.


Not-so-green games for a blue planet

The organisers of the Rio Olympic Games promised to clean up Rio’s dangerously polluted waterways and provide sanitation for at least 80% of the inhabitants before 2016. As the games draw near, they admit that they have failed, but claim that there are no risks to athletes or to the general public.

Back in 2009 Rio de Janeiro won the rights to organise the 2016 Olympic and Paralympics games. During the bidding process, Rio branded its vision for the event as ”Green Games for a Blue Planet”. One of the major pledges made was the “cleaning and regeneration of Rio’s waterways and lakes, through government projects for major new water treatment and sewerage works”.

Photo credit: Silvia Izquierdo / AP  Photo credit: Silvia Izquierdo / AP

The pledge was necessary because Rio has neglected to prioritise public sanitation for decades. This lack of focus, combined with intense urbanisation, has now created a city of more than 6 million inhabitants, many of whom do not even have access to basic sanitation. Raw sewage, including animal carcasses and household items, ends up in the Guanabara Bay on whose shores the city is located. This creates severe pollution and human health issues. Testing done by the Associated Press (AP) last July revealed some disease-causing viruses measured at levels up to 1.7 million times more than what is considered hazardous in the US and Europe.

Water pollution in Rio de Janeiro is not a new issue. The Guanabara Bay Clean-Up Programme was launched in the early ‘90s by the state government. The aim was to improve environmental and sanitary conditions of the Rio metropolitan area. The programme has not made much progress. By 2008, only 32% of the total sewage was treated.

Broken Promises

A specific goal set in Rio’s bid book was to raise this level to 80% before 2016. This they have also failed to accomplish. The number currently stands at 49%. Despite the lack of action, and their acknowledgement of failure to meet own targets, Brazilian officials insist that there is no danger to the public including the sailors and surfers who are to compete in the bay. The German sailor Erik Heil, might disagree. Shortly after having sailed in an Olympic event test last August, he had to undergo treatment for a flesh eating bacteria. He is only one of the many athletes who have already fallen ill.

Despite having had decades to deal with the problem, little has been done. It seems to be very low on the list of current priorities. Brazil is facing a deluge of problems: From a massive economic recession and a president being impeached for corruption. Additionally, huge public protests occur over the brutal evictions of residents from their homes, in order to make way for stadiums and the Olympic City. Regardless of the magnitude of problems, the Brazilian government seems determined that nothing is going to steal its moment in the spotlight; even though this enormous PR exercise costs approximately US$11 billion. This money could instead have been spent on improving the lives of the poor and the environment of the city they live in.

The Brazilian government is not the only one to ignore the problems piling up on the eve of the games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also burying its head in the sand, trying to ignore anything which might compromise the success of the first ever Olympic Games to be held in South America. The IOC has, amongst other things, reneged on a promise it made in the wake of the AP test report: A promise to carry out viral testing of the venue waters. It now states that the organisers are to follow test procedures established by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These focus only on testing for bacteria. Something that makes the results look a lot less scary, since bacteria breaks down in salt water a lot faster that viruses do.

Sacrificing the Olympic Ideals

This refusal to deal with the problems isn’t because the IOC is without options. The Olympic Charter allows the IOC to withdraw the permission to host the games at any time if it has any concerns. The IOC seems determined to plough ahead though, even if it means running over its own Olympic Ideals in the process. Ideals which, among other things, state that the Olympic Movement is about “protecting the health of the athletes”.

Evidently it seems that the IOC is ignoring its own principles. Likewise, Brazil is failing to protect its own citizens and live up to its international obligations. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include commitment to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, seems to have been willfully ignored. Why? To make sure Rio looks good on the world’s TV screens for a few days in August.

This piece was originally published as part of Politheor’s Special Report RIO 2016: Perspectives beyond the mega event.



Brexit: Move on and wish the continent good luck

Environmental organisations in the UK were unanimous in their support for a vote to stay before the Brexit referendum. They believed that the best protection of the environment on the British Isles were to be had by EU legislation. The question is whether we, now that the UK has decided to leave, should dry our eyes and congratulate our continental colleagues on having gotten rid of a serious obstacle?

Well, if we look at the bigger picture then the UK has actually done the rest of EU a huge favour. The UK government have several times lobbied for revisions of protective legislation and tried to influence key votes on environmental issues. Here are a couple of examples.

The Habitats Directive
Almost 25 years ago the EU adopted the Habitats Directive. This created the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. Sites which are designed to protect the most seriously threatened habitats and species across Europe; safeguarding them against potentially damaging development. The Natura 2000 network protects over 1000 animal and plant species and 200 habitat types of European importance.

Some of the protected habitat types are river corridors and wetlands like here in Snowdonia National Park in Wales; an area that hosts several important and rare species such as salmon, trout, lampreys, fresh water pearl mussels, otter and water voles.

Some of the protected habitat types are river corridors and wetlands like here in Snowdonia National Park in Wales; an area that hosts several important and rare species such as salmon, trout, lampreys, fresh water pearl mussels, otter and water voles.

In 2014 the new European Commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries was tasked with ”overhauling the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose”. This included a request to carry out an in depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Since then environment ministers from several countries, including France and Germany, have written to commissioner Vella and urged him not to weaken nature protection legislation.

The environment ministers are not the only ones protesting the proposed revision of the directives. Several MEPs have also written to the Commission urging them to keep the legislation. The UK government though, have been supportive of Juncker’s efforts. This support has come in face of their own evidence. Chancellor George Osborne stated in 2011 that his government would “make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. This led to a review of the directives by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. They published a report in 2012 which found that the directives were largely working well.

Disappearing bees
The UK government also seems to have little regard for bees and their importance for both biodiversity and the pollination of crops. Bee populations have dramatically declined in later years. Scientists strongly suspect that a type of pesticides called neonicotinoids is at least partly responsible for this. Neonicotinoids acts as a nerve agent on bees and other invertebrates. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority reviewed the scientific evidence on the matter. This led EU to adopt the first ban on the use of these pesticides in 2013.


Photo credit:Edwyn Anderton, flickr

The UK government didn’t vote in favour of the ban and actively lobbied against it. In 2015 they proceeded to temporarily suspend the ban on the application of the National Farmers’ Union. This happened despite the fact that the government’s own Experts Committee on Pesticides refused to back the request. Over 500.000 people in the UK signed a petition to stop the suspension. This petition was ignored.

Looking at the bigger picture
These two examples are unfortunately not the only ones. So, is it time for the British environmental campaigners to look at the bigger picture and not be so sad about the UK leaving EU? In spite of the love we have for our wildlife here in the UK it is fairly bog standard. We have few endemic species or habitats found nowhere else. So if the UK is a bad influence in EU environmental matters, then maybe we should give the continent a cheery wave and wish them good luck. It’s going to be hard though..

This is a revised version of a piece originally published on the Politheor Policy Network before the Brexit referendum.