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Can a Computer Predict Innovation?

Posted by: Damian Joseph on July 29, 2009

Check this out… Experts at some big name universities just finished up a study on the U.S. patent system.

The results: stifling.

Bill Tomlinson, of UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, and Andrew Torrance, of the University of Kansas School of Law, found that the patent system discourages innovation. This is counter to the traditional view that patent protection creates a creative framework for innovation. The two researchers created “PatentSim,” an online game that mimics the patent system; essentially, an abstract model.

I don’t want to muddy this so here’s the exact language from the the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review, who published the paper “Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts.”

One way to test the hypothesis that a patent system promotes innovation is experimentally to simulate the behavior of inventors and competitors under conditions approximating patent and non-patent systems. Employing a multi-user interactive simulation of patent and non-patent (commons and open source) systems ("The Patent Game"), this study compares rates of innovation, productivity, and societal utility. The Patent Game uses an abstracted and cumulative model of potential innovations, a database of potential innovations, an interactive interface that allows users to invent, make, and sell these innovations, and a network over which users may interact with one another to license, assign, infringe, and enforce patents. Initial data generated using The Patent Game suggest that a system combining patent and open source protection for inventions (that is, similar to modern patent systems) generates significantly lower rates of innovation (p<0.05), productivity (p<0.001), and societal utility (p<0.002) than does a commons system. These data also indicate that there is no statistical difference in innovation, productivity, or societal utility between a pure patent system and a system combining patent and open source protection.

Basically, this software shows that the patent system is stifling innovation.

This obviously cannot take into account human factors, like creativity and genius, but in an all-things-equal scenario, it seems the largest set of innovations from the bell-shaped curve are being choked.

What do you think?

Can a computer simulation predict the odds of innovation?

Is this viable evidence?

Is the patent system oppressive to would-be inventors?

Are we too far gone to reform the U.S. patent system?

Reader Comments

Michael F. Martin

July 29, 2009 1:09 PM

The key question that any theory of innovation has to answer is how does it occur? Any model of the patent system or innovation that takes as a given that innovation will occur at a certain rate, for example, is basically useless as far as I'm concerned.

The historical point is that the increase in innovation and the invention (in Venice during the Renaissance) and perfection (in the U.S. during the 19th century) of the patent system have been correlated in time. One cannot rule out causation without understanding the mechanism whereby innovation occurs.

On my view, the mechanism must involve collaboration among inventors and others -- just what patents encourage in a world with only trade secret and contract protection otherwise.

Sergei Dovgodko

August 4, 2009 1:51 AM

Corporate innovation begins when the problem is already solved somewhere. The patent system is designed to restrict people's ability to use ideas.

In terms of predicting innovation, it is a fool's game because innovations that matter are "black swans" that cannot be predicted.

Somehow this discussion reminds me of quantitative models used by banks. The models reflected the assumptions of the managers who hired the quants to develop sophisticated models, with pretty obvious outcome.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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