Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The US Patent Office loses its mind.

By way of Slashdot. The preamble to the Amazon's new patent, called "Hybrid machine/human computing arrangement", reads as follows:
A hybrid machine/human computing arrangement which advantageously involves humans to assist a computer to solve particular tasks, allowing the computer to solve the tasks more efficiently. In one embodiment, a computer system decomposes a task, such as, for example, image or speech comparison, into subtasks for human performance, and requests the performances. The computer system programmatically conveys the request to a central coordinating server of the hybrid machine/human computing arrangement, which in turn dispatches the subtasks to personal computers operated by the humans. The humans perform the subtasks and provide the results back to the server, which receives the responses, and generates a result for the task based at least in part on the results of the human performances.
The words "for example" take this beyond the specific example of speech recognition and expands the patent to cover any such arrangement.

In other words, Amazon has patented workflow. That's right, workflow. It is 100% indistinguishable from the workflow solutions used for decades throughout the computing industry. I see nothing original in any of the claims. I have personally designed and worked on many such systems. An example of workflow: Insurance underwriting. The computer receives an insurance application and applies business rules. In some cases the decision is a slam dunk and the computer can accept or reject the application. In other cases, the computer defers the decision to a human underwriter, with time constraints for a decision or escalation. Other aspects of the decision, such as pricing, may occur independently of the underwriter's decision, but be based in part on that decision.

In my opinion, the Amazon patent is unenforceable and would not hold up to even the most casual challenge. If I were asked for advice, I'd say ignore this stupid patent. Let them try to enforce it and embarrass themselves publicly. It appears what we have here are three disingenuous "inventors" attempting to take the credit for and lay claim to decades of prior art. Venky Harinarayan, Anand Rajaraman, and Anand Ranganathan owe the people whose efforts they're apparently attempting to steal a lot of explaining as to why they shouldn't be denounced as opportunistic, greedy, plagiaristic bastiges. It is absolutely inconceivable that these three people could have spent any time at all in the computing industry and not been exposed to workflow. As I see it, that makes this more than a mistake; it's deliberate, and they owe an entire industry an abject, heartfelt, and sincere apology.

It also appears that we have a patent examiner who isn't competent to review claims in this domain. For that, the USPTO should revoke this patent and revise their broken process.


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