The world’s first patent was granted to engineer Filippo Brunelleschi in 1421 for inventing a barge to ferry marbles up the Arno River for the construction of the Florence Cathedral in Italy.
However, it took India four more centuries to enter the world of patents, with civil engineer George Alfred De Penning from Calcutta filing a petition for exclusive privileges for his invention, called Punkah-Pulling Machine, on March 3, 1856.
Cut to the 21st century, India seems to be in sync with the world in patenting trends.
The number of Artificial Intelligence patent applications from India, a reliable measure of innovation today, is on par with many powerful countries.
According to the latest Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) report on ‘Mapping India’s AI potential’, there were ten times as many AI-relevant patent applications in 2018 compared to 2012. Interestingly, global numbers also show a similar trend. Additionally, CSET’s Patents and Artificial Intelligence: A Primer’ report found there were ten times as many AI patent applications published worldwide in 2019 compared to 2013, most of which were yet to be examined.
Personal devices and computing, business, telecommunications, and life sciences are the four largest categories for AI patents in India, the report showed. These four categories account for more than 70 percent of India’s AI patents.
Apart from high internet penetration and data availability, the increased realisation among tech companies about the advantage of patents to safeguard their innovations has led to the rise of patents.
According to iPlytics report 2019, Microsoft has over 18,300 AI-related patents to its credit. IBM has more than 15,000 AI-related patents and received a record 9,100 patents in 2018. The pandemic has forced an increased push towards deeptech in healthcare, retail and finance. Many startups have been leveraging cutting edge technologies. According to the CSET report, the top patenting assignee is Tata Sons Ltd, and most of the large players in the AI patent landscape are big tech companies.
The Indian government has been bullish on deep tech. The government started the National Research Foundation under the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 to boost research, committed INR 3,063 Cr to support research in AI, IoT, Big Data, cybersecurity, machine learning, and robotics, launched the US-India Artificial Intelligence Initiative to support innovation by sharing ideas, among others.
India vs China vs US
Though India’s AI patents numbers have gone up, the country still lags behind China and the United States.
In China, patent applications increased by 500 percent from 2009 to 2019, 90 percent of which were domestic applications, and the US patent office has seen a 35 percent increase in applications during the same time, 48 percent of which were domestic. In contrast, nearly eight out of ten AI patent applications filed in India in more than a decade were by foreigners residing abroad, according to a 2020 report by the Department of Science and Technology.
Though India has a large pool of engineering graduates and produces almost twice as many engineering post-graduates as the United States, its number of doctoral graduates is lesser. The reasons for the same include lack of sufficient research centres or departments in most Indian universities. According to the All India Survey On Higher Education 2018–19 report, only 34.9 percent of all higher education institutions in India offer Master’s or MPhil programmes. Only 2.5 percent has run doctoral programmes.
Engineering Graduates, 2016-2017 (Credit: Center for Security and Emerging Technology)
India spent only $49 billion on research and development in 2015, way behind countries like Japan and Germany. Moreover, Indian AI scholars’ lack of collaboration with foreign researchers contributes to the low numbers. Between 2010 and 2019, out of the 84,384 AI research papers produced by Indian authors, only 16 percent of the papers had at least one non-Indian coauthor.
India is today one of the hotspots for AI patent filing. The unstinting support from the government and venture capital funds is also a positive trend. However, to unleash the full potential of AI, India needs to build research capacity and also bring in new guidelines surrounding AI patenting.
As a 2019 report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) titled ‘Understanding the Dynamics of AI in Intellectual Property,’ pointed out, India needs a strong public policy. “Public policy should take into consideration the guidelines or tenants for AI systems. These tenants will ensure AI technology is strictly used for human benefit,” the report said.