THE COMPUTER AGE AND THE INVENTOR

by Dr Farag Moussa
President of the International Federation of Inventors' Assocations (IFIA)
(e-mail: invention-ifia@bluewin.ch)

Keynote speech given at the
International Invention Symposium
"How Invention & Innovation Open New Business"
(Hong Kong, November 27, 1998)

 

Different eras of political history are frequently identified with royal dynasties, or great wars and revolutions.

Eras in the history of art and architecture may be distinguished by styles such as Renaissance, Gothic, Impressionist or Surrealist, and so on.

Techniques too have marked different eras over the centuries: from the primitive tools of the Stone Age, to the Industrial Age marked by steam and electrical power and the discovery of turbines, and engines.

Today, we have entered a new era: the computer age – an age which owes everything to inventors.

Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, is considered to be the great-grandfather of the computer. Over 150 years ago, in 1840 to be exact, he invented a sophisticated calculating machine, and called it the "Analytical Engine." As with many inventions, his creation was far in advance of its time.

It took another 100 years before the first computers were built, and as you know, they were huge and incredibly heavy. Take, for instance, the famous Mark I. It was the world’s first electro-mechanical computer and was used during World War 2 by the U.S. Navy. In comparison to 20th-century systems, it could be likened to a battleship: 2.6 meters high, 16 meters wide, 2 meters deep, and weighing a massive 5 tons!

The machine – the hardware – could not develop without the software to match, of course. In this respect, two women mathematicians played key roles.

Ada Lovelace Byron, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, wrote in 1843 what today we'd call programs for Charles Babbage’s "Analytical Engine." She was a pioneer and is considered to be the very first programmer in history. That's why 130 years later, the U.S. Department of Defence gave her forename – Ada – A-D-A – to one of the most important computer programs in the world. It is used not only by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force but also by big industry, universities, and other centers of research.

Grace Hopper, an American woman, invented in 1952 the very first compiler of all times, a program which translates a programming language so that it can be understood by computers. It was a sensational breakthrough which opened doors to automatic programming and thus directly to contemporary personal computers (PCs).

Today, computers are at the center of thousands upon thousands of other inventions. They are the heartbeats of the modern world. Computers are every-where – from kitchens to concrete mixers, from planes to pockets. They listen. They speak. They act. Never in world history has one invention had such an influence on humanity as a whole. Without the computer age, there would be no global awareness.

Internet, in particular, has created a brand new environment. A new culture has been born – free, rapid, and universal – where people share their knowledge and expertise. Information and communication techniques have been turned upside down, distance has been eliminated, frontiers abolished. A tremendous interactive potential is burgeoning on our planet Earth today. Like it or lump it – none can stop it!

I would like to mention something concerning Internet. The inventors in 1990 of the World Wide Web (WWW), which revolutionized the contemporary computer world, did not become millionaires. British Tim Berners-Lee and Belgian Robert Caillau, both researchers at European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, did not make any money through their invention of the WWW. They refused to patent it. They feared that in so doing, the use of the Web would prove prohibitively expensive preventing its use worldwide. Thus, they passed up a fortune so that our world can learn and communicate today, and we should be grateful to them for their foresight.

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The invention of the computer with its multitude of programs and new information technologies is transforming the traditional perception of an inventor. A more positive image is emerging. No longer personified by an eccentric crackpot, a crackpot male genius working alone in attic, garage or basement, today's inventors resemble more and more millions of other scientists, industrial researchers and entrepreneurs in workshops or laboratories surrounded by a computer station. All use the "mouse" instead of a pencil, and their drawing boards are computer screens.

Women inventors have also contributed to this change in the traditional image of the inventor, particularly in certain fields such as chemistry, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, not to speak of computer software.

In the USA, for instance, the number of women inventors with patents in the field of chemistry increased three-and-half times during the period from 1977 (2.8%) to 1988 (9.9%). It would be interesting indeed to see what further increases have taken place over the past 10 years.

Another popular fallacy is not only that the large majority of inventors are eccentric and male, but they are also perceived as being rather ancient! The truth is that, thanks to the computer, people are actually inventing more and more at an increasingly youthful age. In Silicon Valley, a 30-year old inventor is considered already long in the tooth, and many newcomers to the inventive world are in their 20s. Some predict that in a few years time, there'll be a new generation of 14-year-old millionaire inventors appearing in Silicon Valley!

Unfortunately, this new generation of inventors – women and very young people – is insufficiently present among representatives of most inventor associations worldwide. These are still run by people who, although totally dedicated to their work, were neither born nor grew up in the computer age. Therefore they find adaptation difficult. Information technology frequently passes them by. This is often a cause of very real problems.

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Let's now consider some of the ways inventors can make use of the new technologies of the computer age.

We all know that inventors need a lot of information. Technological information contained in patent documents is essential at the very earliest stages of invention. It can avoid duplication in research work. It can provide ideas for further development of existing technology. It can also give a glimpse of the technological activities of competitors. That is why Patent Offices have put their patent documentation databases on the Internet. Access is not only fast, but easily accessible, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

It's also free in the sense that it doesn’t cost the inventor a single cent to consult such documentation! Time-consuming travel to Patent Offices or libraries storing patent documents is a thing of the past. The inventor also has access to much more data than through a single database. Obviously, the ideal is one huge library, containing millions of patent documents from all over the world.

The European Patent Office (EPO) has tried to create this world library of patent documents. I am glad to inform you that IFIA Web site allows surfers to visit this EPO site, and through it, to jump to the major providers of patent information in the world, whether they be Patent Offices or private enterprises, such as IBM. A further advantage is the constant updating of all these databases by each of the providers. In brief, it's sufficient to click on one address, the EPO address, to access millions of documents: <http:www.european-patent-office.org/online/index.htm>.

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For many inventors, the marketing stage often starts with a prototype to prove that the product works satisfactorily, and what's more, works safely. The greater a model's perfection, the greater the chances of selling a license to a manufacturer. But a professional prototype, as close to the final product as possible, can rapidly become extremely expensive.

One fantastic and inexpensive alternative to a physical prototype is a computerized model. Basically, it amounts to modelling the invention from all angles on a computer, with self-running commentary, demonstrations and animation of all the invention’s functions. The diskette or ZIP disk can be duplicated in as many copies as necessary, and sent via regular mail.

The computerized prototype can also be loaded onto a video tape and copies made. Busy executives – prospective investors, licensees or buyers – seem, however, to prefer a diskette which is easy to put into the computer, in addition to the fact that most offices do not have a TV and VCR. The video tape would seem more appropriate when presenting an invention at an exhibition or fair.

On the subject of invention shows, let me stress in passing that virtual exhibitions exist already. One of IFIA's members, the Hungarian Association of Inventors, even launched an international competition of inventions last March with a virtual jury, each member sitting serenely in front of his/her computer screen, somewhere around the world.

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With the computer age upon us, we are also moving slowly but surely away from the traditional paper system of filing patent applications to the new electronic filing system – a rapid and cheap transmission system of text and image data.

Patent Offices are now engaged in preparing the necessary tools to assist inventors and other applicants in this form of electronic commerce. Naturally, their Web sites will have to provide links to reference material, technical guidelines and instructions on filing applications.

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, provides inventors and industry with an advantageous route for obtaining patent protection worldwide. Starting from January 1, 1999, the PCT is offering a reduction of US$ 200 (two hundred) for every electronic filing. That's quite an encouragement to use this system!

However, no system is perfect. It still remains a fact that Patent Offices are faced with serious technical issues related to information security. Namely: How to ensure the security and authenticity of the transmission and exchange of unpublished – therefore confidential – data? The next question to arise is: Who will be responsible in case of third-party intrusions? The Patent Office? – or the applicant?

Because of the international nature of the patent system, it has been decided recently that all information security issues will be examined in the framework of WIPO.

To better understand some of the many issues involved, I would like to give two examples as described in a WIPO document discussed a few days ago in Geneva:

" ... any exchange between applicants and examiners requires excellent levels of security and data privacy. Furthermore, many of these activities require some assurance of the identity of one party or another. For example, if an applicant is exchanging information with an examiner, the examiner needs to know that the individual is indeed authorized to provide information, (e.g. proof of identity), and the applicant needs to be confident that he or she is indeed in contact with a patent examiner and not a clever hacker. [...]"

"The exchange of priority documents provides another interesting example. If a priority document is to be exchanged in electronic form, it needs to be validated by the originating party. In other words, the document needs to be signed to demonstrate its authenticity, it needs to have a guaranteed time stamp associated with the transaction, preferably by a third party (to prevent presumed or actual forgery of dates and times), and it needs to have some guarantee of accuracy, so that a party obtaining the document can tell if tampering occurred..."

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Every now and then we hear some people say, "There's hardly anything left to invent. Everything has been invented already!".  What a silly remark! You can be certain that inventors will continue inventing, and new discoveries will be made, right up to the very last minute before the world comes to an end! But to return to today, with the computer age, the possibilities of invention are endless and in all possible fields.

It has also been said that the computer will eventually invent the inventor. By that I mean that one day, the computer will replace the inventor. Up to a point, I must agree – but only to a certain extent. You can feed the computer with billions of data. One has even beaten a world chess champion. Nevertheless, the computer has no humanity, no imagination, no sensitivity or affectivity, and no inherent wisdom. Can it smell the perfume of a rose? ...interpret the color of a sunrise? Can it caress the cheek of a child? ...or savor the taste of Hong Kong's dim sum?! Above all it's a machine – a fantastic machine – but remember, it’s only a machine.

So let's not make a new god out of the computer, as some tend to do. But rather use its possibilities to a maximum ... and through it, try quite simply to build a better world. That should be our motto.

 

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