Evolutionary design and the future for in-house patent lawyers

A mind-boggling item in the Economist, Dec. 8, 2007 at 12, explains the recent surge of interest in what is called “evolutionary design.” Evolutionary design uses a computer program called an evolutionary algorithm to “run through tens of millions of variations on an invention until it hits on the best solution to a problem.” As personal computers have become faster, the software has found additional uses for its ability to try out huge amounts of combinations and test the results against the desired outcome. Only successful “evolutions” survive, so the output gradually becomes more fit to purpose.

What struck me was the article’s description of the way a team at Stanford University developed a Wi-Fi antenna for a client who did not want to pay a patent-license fee to Cisco. “The team fed the algorithm as much data as they could from the Cisco patent and told the software to design around it. It succeeded in doing so. The result is a design that does not infringe Cisco’s patent – and is much more efficient to boot.”

In-house patent lawyers ought to be worried, on two counts. One is that their workload might hugely increase if patentable inventions can be generated en masse from evolutionary algorithms. The other is that patent litigation will become more convoluted and common if software generates clever work-arounds.

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