Patent Office Presents $50,000 Innovation Challenge

U.S. Trademark and Patent Office turns to crowdsourcing for an algorithm to speed the patent approval process.
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The U.S. Trademark and Patent Office (USPTO) is offering a $50,000 prize to technologists that special in image processing to create new technology to help modernize the process of patent examination.

The USPTO Innovation Challenge seeks the creation of a new algorithm to help reduce the paper burden of its current system for deciding whether to approve patents or not, according to a post on the White House blog.

Currently, people who work in the patent office must examine hundreds of pages of documentation related to the half-million patent applications filed by inventors, entrepreneurs, and businesses each year, to make decisions on whether to grant them or not, according to a post by Robynn Sturm Steffen, a senior adviser to the deputy director for policy at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The challenge--developed in collaboration with NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation--asks participants to work in teams of two over a month to develop an algorithm that can automatically identify and locate specific elements within patent documents to make it easier for patent examiners to do their job.

[ Learn more about NASA's innovation competition. See NASA Unveils Space Apps Challenge. ]

A better way to examine illustrations that are key to whether a patent application is approved or not is specifically what the USPTO is looking for from challenge participants, Steffen said.

Generally in applications, information on illustrations will be scattered on different pages of the document and the patent examiner must "flip back and forth between the textual description and the drawings," she wrote. This, naturally, slows down the process considerably.

However, with software that can automatically identify key features of technical drawings, "a patent examiner would be able to see the descriptive text associated with each part right on the drawing page," Steffen said.

"Few image processing problems can be solved reliably today, but image processing experts think this particular problem is sufficiently well defined to reap the benefits of crowdsourcing, which has a strong track record of surfacing novel solutions from unexpected places," she said.

Agencies increasingly are using challenges and other forms of crowdsourcing to enlist the public's help on better ways of using technology to help the federal government improve the way it works.

The administration even launched the website in 2010 to formalize how it works with the public on new ideas through challenges.

More than 900 participants worldwide have already applied to take part in the USPTO Innovation Challenge, and judges will decide on the winner before Feb. 16, 2012, Steffen said.

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