We’ve been hearing about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for years now and how it’s increasingly shifting from the theoretical to reality, and finding its way into so many industries and applications – from self-driving cars to robots to our smartphones. Now a new study just released by the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has revealed a global upsurge in AI-based inventions, with IBM and Microsoft leading the way with the most patent applications of any other company.

The study, entitled “WIPO Technology Trends,” cites more the 350,000 AI-related patent applications between 1950 and 2016, with more than half of them being published after 2013. And as government and industry leaders grapple with the challenges AI poses with regards to ethical issues, safety of personal information and the potential loss of human jobs, it’s interesting to note that nearly 87 per cent of AI patent applications have been made by companies, with universities and research organizations making up the rest.

Leading the pack is IBM, with the largest portfolio of patent applications topping out at a whopping 8,290 made by the end of 2016. Which isn’t surprising as IBM’s Watson machine learning computer system is more or less synonymous with AI, and the company continues to make the development of the technology a priority.

In Canada, IBM continues to drive AI innovation in several areas, including recently expanding the work it’s been doing with Montreal’s Client Innovation Centre (CIC) as they continue their focus on AI research. The partnership, between the CIC and Salesforce, will bring 100 high-skilled jobs to Montreal, which has established itself as the fastest-growing hub for AI development in the world.

But Microsoft isn’t sitting on its hands either, with the WIPO report citing 5,930 patents filed. The multinational tech giant is also well entrenched in Canada’s AI scene in Montreal, having opened its Microsoft Research Lab there in 2017. “Research in the lab focuses on machine reading comprehension, dialogue and reinforcement learning,” the lab’s website states.  “Microsoft Research Montreal is the company’s largest natural language processing lab.”

Rounding out the top five AI patent-holding companies are Toshiba, Samsung and NEC, respectively.

“Patenting activity in the artificial intelligence realm is rising at a rapid pace,” WIPO Director General Francis Gurry says in the report. “Meaning we can expect a very significant number of new AI-based products, applications and techniques that will alter our daily lives – and also shape future human interaction with the machines we created.”

But what areas of AI development are getting the most attention? The WIPO study points to a range of AI techniques and applications that have garnered the most patents.

Machine learning, specifically those used for machine translation, is the most dominant AI technique and is used in more than a third of all the identified invention patents. Deep learning, on the other hand, is a technique used in speech recognition systems – such as those used in assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and voice dialling – is the fastest growing AI technique with a nearly 20-fold increase in patent applications from 2013 to 2016.

Some industries with the highest and fastest rates of AI growth include transportation and life and medical sciences. Which makes sense when you consider that computer vision (crucial for the implementation of self-driving cars) appears in nearly 50 per cent of all AI-related patents, while AI for robotics (essential for helper robots, robotic surgery and drug personalization) grew 265 per cent in only three years.

“AI’s ramifications for the future of human development are profound,” Gurry said. “WIPO is pleased to contribute evidence-based projections, thereby informing global policymaking on the future of AI, its governance and the IP framework that supports it,”

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