Thursday, January 21, 2021

How patents help us invent the future

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I remember my first IBM patent.

Granted to my colleagues and myself in 2005, it was for a waterproof topcoat for a photosensitive resin – a light-sensitive substance used to create circuit diagrams for semiconductor chips. It was a proud moment for me, especially because I knew that this patent contained new capabilities that were essential for a whole new technology called immersion lithography. This technology quickly became the basis for manufacturing all advanced chips even to this day.

A patent is proof of an invention, protects it through legal documentation and, most importantly, is published for all to read. We scientists and engineers, at IBM and elsewhere, are actively planting the research seeds of tomorrow’s high-tech world. In my company, our most recent patents cover artificial intelligence (AI), hybrid cloud, cybersecurity and quantum computing. There is no more to the future than that.

The US patent system dates back to the very dawn of our nation. It is detailed in the Constitution, allowing Congress to grant inventors the exclusive right to their discoveries for a specified period of time. It is insurance designed to motivate inventors to continue to innovate.

We could oppose patents that do not immediately turn into commercial products. But I do not agree. To invent something new comes down to proposing a well-thought-out theory that may one day be verified experimentally. Maybe this won’t be used right away, but having theories is still essential to improve our overall understanding of an area and to keep moving forward. Just as important as having patents for today’s products is having forward-looking patents, and a broad portfolio of scientific advancements always ends up contributing to waves of innovation.

Patents stimulate innovation and the economic performance of a country. Over the years, they have provided us with advanced technologies such as laser, self-driving cars, graphene, and solar panels. At IBM, we have developed and patented widely used products such as automated teller machine (ABM), voice recognition technology, B2B e-commerce software with consumer-type purchasing functionality for processing commercial orders, hard drive, the DRAM (the ubiquitous memory) that powers our phones and computers), and even the famous floppy disk which is now history, to name a few. In fact, as reported this week, 2020 was the 28econsecutive year thatIBM led the United States in the number of patents granted.

One of the main reasons companies invest billions of dollars in research and development is the assurance of a patent for protection of inventions. It leads scientists and engineers from different companies to try to find the best and most original solutions to global problems, paving the way for new and better products. And we are not short of global problems to solve, far from it. Innovation is what helps us deal with pandemics, fight global warming, tackle energy and food shortages, and much more.

I will end with a reflection. A dynamic culture of innovation combines patenting, publishing, contribution to experimentation and open-source and active discovery in the market. All are needed, fueled by the joy innovators experience with the spark of new ideas and the desire to bring them to life.

Darío Gil is senior vice president and director of IBM Research. He is also responsible for IBM’s intellectual property strategy and activities.

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