When AI meets the trade mark industry

25th Mar 2019

Sylvie Martin, IBM, made us gasp as she revealed the growth and influence of artificial intelligence (AI). But what does AI mean for trade marks?

Sylvie Martin

‘AI is almost everywhere in our everyday lives,’ Sylvie told a refreshed audience just back from coffee at this year’s Spring Conference. ‘It’s present at home and at work. We frequently talk about it, but what exactly is it?’ 

AI makes an appearance when we’re sending emails. When we type into a search bar. When we talk to a chat bot or ask a smart speaker to do something for us. We all use it, all the time. But it goes deeper than this. To use Sylvie’s definition, AI is the ‘simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, particularly computer software and systems’. 

One of these intelligence processes is machine learning, where the machine reviews data and determines rules for how to use it. It can then apply these rules to the data, answer questions and provide a diagnostic report. 

‘In short,’ Sylvie said, ‘AI finds useful information when we ask for it. It is a humanoid robot.’ And it has already found its way into medicine, finance, health and banking. 

Consider these two stats. By 2020, 80% of customer service interactions in retail will be powered or influenced by AI, online and offline. Within 20 years, almost all human tasks will be handled by a computer. If these are accurate, the world of trade marks will soon join the list of industries above. 

At its most extreme, AI removes the human from the retail purchasing process. Where it doesn’t, it certainly reduces human involvement. This is dangerous for trade mark law, Sylvie argued, because, at its foundation, what we do is about humans. 

Think about the classic trade mark language: ‘confusion’, ‘assessment of similarity’, ‘average consumer’, and ‘imperfect recognition or recollection’. This language centres around how humans interact with brands and purchasing. 

Now that AI can be responsible for suggesting a product to buy, as well as carry out the purchase directly, troubling questions come up for trade mark law. Does AI take the place of the average consumer? Can it be confused? When Alexa suggests a product for you, could it become a secondary infringer? 

‘AI is a new digital frontier that will have a profound impact on the world,’ says director general of WIPO, Francis Gurry. ‘It will have enormous technological, economical and social consequences, and it is going to change the way we produce and distribute goods and services, as well as the way that we work and we live’. 

The questions above are open. And without simple answers. One thing though is very clear: a new technology has arrived and it presents new challenges to us and our industry.  

Sylvie Martin is the head of IBM’s IP department.