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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Google Deep Mind’s Bogus AI Patent Filings

I hadn't intended to write a second post in a row about politically weird stuff related to Google Deep Mind, but the news just keeps coming....

This one gets filed in the “don’t know whether to laugh or barf” department, I suppose....

So I saw today that Google Deep Mind has filed a bunch of patent applications for well-known AI techniques, all or nearly all of which certainly are not their original inventions.   

This specific batch of patents has been made public now because they were filed a year and a half ago.   Any patents filed since December 2016 are yet to be disclosed. These patents are not yet granted, just filed, and my guess is they will not be granted -- they’re too ridiculously, obviously broad and unoriginal.   However, even if moderately weakened versions of these are somehow granted, it still will be absurd and potentially dangerous…

Check this one out, for instance:  a patent filing for RECURRENT NEURAL NETWORKS , whose abstract is

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for environment simulation. In one aspect, a system comprises a recurrent neural network configured to, at each of a plurality of time steps, receive a preceding action for a preceding time step, update a preceding initial hidden state of the recurrent neural network from the preceding time step using the preceding action, update a preceding cell state of the recurrent neural network from the preceding time step using at least the initial hidden state for the time step, and determine a final hidden state for the time step using the cell state for the time step. The system further comprises a decoder neural network configured to receive the final hidden state for the time step and process the final hidden state to generate a predicted observation characterizing a predicted state of the environment at the time step.”

Many of us remember teaching and implementing this stuff before the Web, let alone Google, existed…The patent filing for NEURAL NETWORKS FOR SELECTING ACTIONS TO BE PERFORMED BY A ROBOTIC AGENT   is equally ridiculous … and the list goes on and on … you get the picture …

Google Deep Mind is an awesome group of AI researchers and developers; I know two of the founders personally, one of them pretty well as he worked for me for a couple years around 1999-2000, and I also know a bunch of their other research staff from our interactions in the AGI community.   Deep Mind has certainly has had its share of genuine AI innovations. For instance if they’d filed for a patent on Neural Turing Machines (which they may well have, since December 2016) it would be less insane -- one could argue there about the relation to various prior art, but at least there was a genuine new invention involved….

The arguments against software patents in general are well known and I find them pretty compelling overall -- the classic essay Why Patents are Bad for Software by Simon Garfinkel, Mitch Kapor and Richard Stallman lays out the argument fairly well, and this article gives some of Stallman’s updated comments.  

Even those who argue in favor of software patents in the abstract, have to admit that the software patent system is typically used to the advantage of big companies as opposed to small ones, e.g. Paul Heckel, in a 1992 article devoted to “Debunking the Software Patent Myths” observes that

“The data shows that it is commonplace for large companies to pirate the technology of small entities. No case was cited where a large company licensed a small entity's technology without first being sued, suggesting that the existing laws do not motivate large companies to resolve patent disputes with small companies quickly.”

He also notes “Heckel's Principle of Dealing with Big Companies: There is no such thing as a free lunch; unless you're the lunch.”

Tesla opened up a number of its patents a few years ago.   Their motives for doing so may have been complexly business-driven , but nevertheless, open is open.   If Deep Mind patents well-known AI algorithms and then makes the patents open and the (basically spuriously) patented technology free for all to use, it will arguably be doing a service to the world and the AI community, by blocking other less beneficent big companies from patenting these things and trying to enforce the patents.

On the other hand, obtaining (even watered down versions of) such patents and retaining them is just plain bad for innovation, bad for AI and bad for humanity.

Software patents are generally not all THAT impactful on the industry, occasional horror stories aside.   However, the holding of patents for well known technologies is part of the megacorporation’s strategy for achieving domination.   Such patents form tools that big companies can use in market battles against other big companies, and against small companies threatening their domination.   

Google has never been a patent troll and their goal in filing these bogus patent applications may well be purely defensive -- to protect themselves against Facebook or IBM or whomever doing the same first.    It still does stink, though. It is a symbol and reminder and example of why AI technology -- the most important thing happening on the planet now -- should not be trusted to megacorporations. Big companies claiming ownership rights over well-known techniques, and succeeding a certain percentage of the time, and then judiciously exerting this bogus “ownership” to advance their economic advantage -- this is not the kind of dynamic we want, if our goal is beneficial AGI to uplift all sentient beings.

This is a reminder and example of why we need a mostly decentralized and open AI ecosystem, such as we’re building toward with SingularityNET -- and with our newly forming Decentralized AI Alliance bringing together decentralization oriented AI projects.   AI innovation and application will occur most naturally and beneficially in a self-organizing, decentralized, entrepreneurial way -- but there is a looming risk that the development of AI gets channeled toward narrower aims by phenomena like what we’re seeing just now from Google Deep Mind, big companies using their resources to claim ownership of ideas they did not invent.

It actually pains and annoys me to blog negative stuff about Google Deep  Mind, because that is an awesome group of people doing amazing AI R&D. The message I’m getting, from my position outside that organization without knowledge of the internal politics, is that even a group of really brilliant, good-hearted and open-minded people, acting within a global mega-corporation, cannot avoid getting sucked into processes that guide AI advance in directions that contradict the common and overall good.   

When founded, Deep Mind made a lot of noise about its AI ethics board … with comments by folks like Jaan Tallinn and Nick Bostrom, regarding the importance of this ethics board for guiding the work of Deep Mind in the case they make serious progress toward human level Artificial General Intelligence.   But what we see lately are more immediate and practical instances of confusing AI ethics at Deep Mind, from their recent questionable preferential access to public medical data, to this rash of bogus patent applications.

For sure, none of these recent ethical oddities are as serious as a rogue AGI taking over the planet and self-modifying and self-replicating so as to turn the universe into paper clips.    However, it may be that the first human-level AIs and superhuman AIs on the planet emerge in part from a combination of earlier-stage practical AI systems created by various companies addressing various markets.   If this is the case, then having current practical AI efforts obey practical everyday ethics, and develop in a democratic and participatory rather than centralized and megacorporation-share-price-driven way, may have implications for longer-term AGI ethics as well as for the near-term health of society and the AI ecosystem.


Bill Lauritzen said...

Excellent post, Ben.

Unknown said...


Peter Morgan said...

Well said.

fridemar said...

It needs independent, knowable and courageous people on the one hand who inform the authorities and uncorrupted people who decide on granting patents or not...

Bob Foster said...

Word wrap seems to be broken on this page. Tried in Chrome and Firefox.

Bob Foster said...

As soon as I posted that comment, the paragraphs wrapped. Very odd.

Junkyard Dog said...

From Rabbi David Cooper:

"[A] woman teacher once said to me, "The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most obvious instance in the entire Torah in which the relationship between male and female has been contaminated by absurd implications. Any assumption that Adam and Eve represent a relationship of gender as the first man and woman of creation is ludicrous. Rather, the mystics treat these--and all major biblical characters--as divine principles. Adam and Eve represent the principle of duality, each a polar opposite of the other."

One of the ways Eastern tradition discusses polarity of this type is through the image of yin and yang. In exactly the same way, the language of Adam and Eve is of expansion and contraction, outward and inward, light and dark, hard and soft. Neither is better than the other; both are required for balance and harmony.

In addition to the duality of Adam and Eve, a third element is required for creation. This is the serpent, which represents a force of fragmentation.

In Kabbalah, Satan is said to represent the physical universe. Indeed, the universe as we know it is referred to in mystical writings as "the skin of the serpent." In the mystical cosmology of the Garden of Eden, the archetype of the serpent merges with the life-force, which is the form and substance of life is represented by Adam and Eve. Once the serpent is able to merge with this life force, the mystical formula is complete for the metaphysics of creation.

[I]ndeed, the kabbalistic teaching is that Satan, the force of fragmentation, is the crucial element required for creation, because without it everything would unite with God--everything would become one. This does not mean that the splintering force of Satan is separate from the unity of God, but, paradoxically, that it is contained within the oneness of the Divine.

In this kabbalistic approach, we clearly see that the story of the Garden of Eden is a cosmology that far transcends the more commonly accepted versions. Obviously, a new perception of the Western creation story would dramatically affect not only our image of Adam, Eve and the serpent, it would permeate our collective consciousness in a way that could profoundly impact on the way we view ourselves as human beings, how we relate to each other, and how we relate to God."

From the Dog:


Unknown said...

Reading your site using chrome on Android the wordwrap is not working, have to scroll sideways a lot and makes it hard to read