18 December 2017
In the last few days the EPO has published a compelling report on a topic that has the ability to change our industries and indeed society. Industry 4.0, or the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4IR), signifies the massive deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT). Billions of devices at home and at work, equipped with sensors, processors and embedded software, will be connected and operate autonomously based on the data that they collect or exchange with each other. In short, it means the automation of more tasks – even intellectual ones carried out traditionally by humans.
The ability of these technologies to change our lives and industrial processes demands that we take a closer look at this phenomenon. Businesses, industry, analysts, policy makers and many others are starting to discuss in greater detail the challenges and opportunities presented by this revolution. This year, we have already seen the World Economic Forum in Davos discuss the implications of 4IR and subsequently cover the EPO’s report in their blog. In the week since publishing, our study has also been downloaded nearly two thousand times indicating high interest in this subject.
No matter where it is discussed, 4IR dialogue has to be supported with accurate statistical analyses. While the economic potential is widely cited – according to a study for the European Commission, the market value of the IoT is expected to exceed one trillion euros in 2020 in the European Union alone – a fuller understanding of evolving trends is needed to support informed debate on the subject. As one of the leading suppliers of patent information, the EPO holds solid data and has the expertise to objectively evaluate it in a way that can help provide a meaningful understanding as we head into this period of great change.
By looking at patent applications, our report found that Europe was, and remains, at the forefront of these technologies. More significantly, the patenting of 4IR technologies at the EPO has increased faster than other applications since the 1990s. That acceleration has been dramatic in the last few years. Patent Offices everywhere must therefore ask themselves whether they have sound practices for the patenting of such rapidly advancing technologies.
Over the last few decades we’ve developed very well-established Computer-implemented invention (CII) patenting procedures and an associated policy capable of dealing with the increasing number of applications for 4IR technologies (by definition all 4IR inventions are computer-implemented inventions). For example, annual improvements are made to the CII content of the Guidelines for Examination to provide a consistent, harmonised procedure. A dedicated Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) committee also acts as a co-ordinating body for ensuring that all internal stakeholders are informed and contribute on 4IR matters. Meanwhile, our three-person examination divisions are composed to ensure that each application is dealt with by a team having the necessary expertise to deal with 4IR innovation, which regularly combines traditional fields. Emphasis is also placed on constant staff development through learning modules and patent academy course materials to deliver CII training throughout the entire EPO operational area. For the EPO as a whole, we will also finish implementing a significant reorganisation on 1 January so that our core structure reflects the evolutionary changes that are inherent in ICT, CII and more widely the 4IR.
These kinds of changes are a necessity in this period. Only with a patent granting process that reflects the nature of rapid technological developments can we hope to effectively support 4IR inventors. Provided we maintain our well-established patent granting arrangements for 4IR inventions, I am confident Europe will continue to grow in its leading role and capitalise on the exciting changes underway. It is a time of great opportunity for industry and innovation.