Thomas J Watson Research Center

The Story Behind IBM’s 2019 Patent Leadership

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IBM is the leader in U.S. patents for the 27th year running, but what does it really mean?  

Inching closer to stable and error-free qubits – the beating heart of quantum computers. Artificial intelligence that understands natural language better than ever before. Hybrid cloud and better cloud security. Blockchain to up the safety of autonomous cars and goods in transit. And much, much more – more than 9,000 inventions that IBM patented in the U.S. in 2019 alone.

To be precise, our inventors were awarded 9,262 U.S. patents – topping, once again, the list for the most U.S. patents received, for the 27th year running. That’s the most patents ever given to a company in a single year and brings the total number of IBM’s U.S. patents to over 140,000.

Concurrent with the news of our patent leadership, IBM also announced that we are joining our Red Hat colleagues as members of the LOT Network. This consortium of 600 companies plays a vital role in curbing frivolous patent claims brought forward by patent assertion entities that can cripple innovation in significant ways.

IBM’s first patent: U.S. Patent #998,631 issued July 25, 1911

Patents are an important marker for how innovative a company is and they keep copycats at bay. And for IBM, innovation has always been at the very core of our identity. While the first accounts of intellectual property protection go back to ancient Greece, for IBM a pivotal moment came on July 25, 1911 – when John Royden Peirce received U.S. Patent # 998,631 for his punched card system for tabulation, the Peirce Accounting Machine. His Peirce Accounting Machine Company was bought by the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R) in 1921, which became IBM in 1924 – and Peirce’s patent became our first patent. The number of IBM patents has been increasing steadily ever since, especially so after the birth of IBM Research, the organization I have the privilege of leading, almost exactly 75 years ago.

Patents are the result of the creative spirit of our scientists, engineers, and designers –  a source of energy that has powered IBM for more than a century despite dramatic shifts in the worlds of computing and information technology. While patents protect a company’s innovative work, they serve another purpose, too. They are crucial for inventors eager to create new products and services. We had more than 8,500 IBM inventors in 54 countries contribute to IBM patents in 2019. About half of our patented inventions become commercial products, benefiting business and society. Patents also motivate rivals to come up with creative alternative ideas, spurring broader innovation and economic growth.

During 2019, one of our researchers, Kangguo Cheng, who mainly works with semiconductor devices, patented 337 inventions, meaning he now has more patents than Thomas Edison. Nearly a hundred other inventors patented between 30 and 161 technologies each. In May last year, IBM Fellow and computer scientist Chieko Asakawa was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the invention of the Home Page Reader that is now the most widely used web-to-speech system.

IBM became the U.S. patent leader in 1982. Our wide range of patents over the past century reflects the evolution of the company. IBM started out with making scales and clocks, but then revolutionized computing – first with the introduction of the mainframe, and then by bringing PCs to everyone, from businesses to individuals. Today, we are doing so again through cloud computing, blockchain, AI, and the incredibly promising field of quantum computing.

We patented, for example, novel methods to ensure the frequencies of quantum bits, or qubits, can’t be changed. When two qubits are linked – entangled – their frequencies must be similar, but not the same. Keeping the frequencies unchangeable makes qubits more stable. This is crucial to get us closer to achieving quantum advantage, when a quantum computer will outperform a traditional computer in a useful task. When that happens, quantum computers should help us simulate molecules with incredible precision, boosting the development of new materials and life-saving drugs, and revolutionize the fields of cryptography and finance. Our scientists secured more quantum computing patents than any other company last year.

In artificial intelligence in 2019, IBM patented over 1,800 inventions, many of which have to do with the area of natural language processing. True understanding of spoken speech for a machine is far from trivial. Our AI technologies continue to make great strides in this area, crucial for numerous industries and for the ways in which we will all interact with computers in the future.

Then there is the cloud. With more than 2,500 U.S. patents in 2019, our individual cloud tech patent output exceeded that of other companies. Hybrid cloud has been one of our top priorities. For many businesses, moving applications and data into the cloud is not trivial. Our researchers have patented, among hundreds of other inventions, a joint portal to organize, standardize and streamline data flowing through the infrastructure in the cloud and locally, making both systems interoperable and coordinated across a hybrid cloud environment.

Security applications have always been key for us and, last year, IBM was granted over 1,400 patents in this area of research. One important innovation is the novel crypto scheme called homomorphic encryption, which allows data manipulation without decrypting the data first. Using this type of encryption could greatly improve the safety of sensitive financial, medical, government and other data, preventing leaks. Even a future quantum computer wouldn’t be able to break this encryption.

And there are blockchain technologies, crucial for industries that strive for improved transparency, verification and security.  One patent describes a novel technology to help deal with so-called ‘replay attacks’, when an attacker copies and uses signature information from one transaction on a blockchain to later perform other transactions that are not authorized.

And while IBM doesn’t make consumer products these days, our researchers have received a patent for a smartwatch that unfolds into a wrist-mounted phone or tablet. Time will tell whether this concept will be turned into a product, but it clearly demonstrates that what makes a company innovative is people. People who get it, and people who dare. And that’s what IBM is ultimately all about.

Director of IBM Research

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