Special Report

20 Companies Leading the AI Revolution

Detailed Findings

Sheer numbers do not tell the whole story though. The quality of filed patents depends to some degree on the quality of the research that goes into the patent — and research quality can be judged on the basis of how much academic research a country produces (quantity) and how often that work is cited by other researchers (quality).

Last July, China’s Tsinghua University published a report on AI research and development that showed Chinese universities and companies produced more than twice as many highly cited AI research papers than did U.S. institutions and companies. In other words, not only does China produce more research than any other country, but also the research it produces is of high quality.

Another facet of the patent boom in AI is litigation. Just 0.4% (1,264) of AI patent filings are mentioned in litigation cases, according to WIPO’s report. A more substantial 1.25% (4,231) are mentioned in cases where the patent filing is being opposed, while 492 are mentioned in both. The top three defendants in patent litigation cases are Microsoft, Apple, and Alphabet. As with bank robbers, patent trolls go where the money is.

And there is (or soon will be) plenty of money in AI. According to a 2017 report from consulting firm McKinsey, global spending by companies on AI totaled $26 billion to $39 billion in 2016, with the majority ($20 billion to $30 billion) invested by tech firms like Google’s parent Alphabet, IBM, and Microsoft. Forrester Research, which defines AI more broadly, estimated global spending on AI at around $400 billion in 2017 and projects it would rise to $1.2 trillion by 2020.

As with any new technology, though, legal, ethical, and social concerns lag behind development. The WIPO report acknowledges the problem:

[M]ost experts agree that the possibilities offered by [AI] technologies are immense. Even commentators whose reservations with regard to “superintelligence” are substantial and profound … believe the benefits of AI will outweigh the harm. They foresee AI making us more productive, a trend that has been ongoing for hundreds of years, and as Keynes predicted back in the 1930s, it may even lead to a future when there are no dehumanizing jobs, there is more space for leisure, and more people dedicate themselves to the arts or to the community.

The WIPO report also cites Paul Nemitz of the European Commission: “New technologies should not mean new values.” In fact, though, that looks like exactly what might be needed.

Detailed Findings

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) researchers collected and analyzed patent data using the FAMPAT database. The database indexes patent applications and granted patents from more than a hundred patenting authorities worldwide. a worldwide collection of patents grouped by invention-based families, which indexes patent applications and granted patents from more than a hundred patenting authorities worldwide. There were 59.3 million patent families in the database at the time of the search.

Further details of the search criteria and results are available from this WIPO background paper.

The companies are listed in order of total patent applications worldwide. The worldwide total is an approximation based on a graph in the WIPO report except in the cases of IBM and Microsoft for which totals were given in text.

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