The application underlying the present decision relates to a system with the ability to self-configure after the installation of new data sources. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since the the distinguishing features would only refer to the mere presentation of information. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2021/17 (Intelligent agents/UNIVERSITY of STRATHCLYDE) dated October 7, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:
The Board in charge summarized the invention underlying the present decision as follows:
1.1 The invention concerns monitoring the condition of hardware and/or machines, such as transformers in a power station (see Figure 17 of the published application).
Data from e.g. vibration or temperature sensors (“condition data sources”) is processed in a “conditioning monitoring platform” and displayed via a user interface. The objective is to dynamically adapt to new data sources and processing capabilities without the user having to search for new features (paragraph bridging pages 25 and 26).
This is achieved by using “intelligent agents”, which are software entities that act autonomously to achieve goals based on the environment (see e.g. page 8, lines 20ff.). Such agents are said to react to changes in the environment (reactivity – R), work without external prompting (pro-activity – P) and interact with other agents (social ability – S).
Fig. 1 of WO 2011/045571 A1
Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the third auxiliary request:
Claim 1 (third auxiliary request)
A computer based conditioning monitoring system configured to monitor the condition of physical hardware and/or at least one machine, the system comprising:
a plurality of condition data sources adapted to provide condition data relating to the machine and/or physical hardware;
a user interface for presenting condition data to a user;
a conditioning monitoring platform operable to communicate with the plurality of data sources and the user interface, the conditioning monitoring platform comprising:
a plurality of user assistants implemented by a first class of software agents, each user assistant being operable to determine condition data of interest to a user by presenting to the user a plurality of user selectable options based on available data, and receiving one or more user selections by presenting a plurality of high
level options to a user, each option being associated with a plurality of related, more specific options, wherein on selection of one of the high level options the other more specific options are presented; and each user assistant being further operable to build and store a user profile based on the condition data of interest; each user assistant being configured to change the user profile by updating the user profile in response to receipt of information on a new user interest and/or in response to at least one user input;
a user translator for translating information received from the user into a form interpretable by the computer based system and translating information received from the computer based system into a form interpretable by the user;
a plurality of data managers implemented by a second class of software agents, at least one associated with each condition data source, each data manager adapted to provide access to its associated data source; to identify when new data is added to its associated data source; and to communicate data to user assistants that have a user profile that indicates the data is of interest, wherein when a new condition data source becomes available a new associated data manager is added; and
a plurality of service managers implemented by a third class of software operable to access data made available by the data managers, each service manager operable to provide an analysis of data using one or more data analysis functions, each service manager having knowledge of the type of data required to perform its analysis function, and being operable to communicate with user assistants that have that data in their user profile;
the system is configured to allow the addition of one or more new data analysis functions and an associated service manager; and
the user assistant is adapted to search for and match the service managers that provide data analysis functions with its associated user based on the user profile, and/or the plurality of service managers being adapted to search for and match with one or more user assistants based on the user profiles.
Is it technical?
Since the third auxiliary request provides the narrowest scope, the Board in charge directed its assessment to this request. According to the Board, in accordance with the Appellant’s view, D1 forms the closest prior art for the subject-matter of claim 1 of the third auxiliary request. The Board identified the following distinguishing features over D1:
2.6 In the Board’s view, D1 does not disclose dynamically building a user profile based on the interests of the user. There is no mechanism for interacting with the user by presenting user selectable options and receiving user selections. …
Another difference is that, while in D1 the different functions are all preformed by the same agent, the tasks are in claim 1 divided between “user assistants”, “data managers”, “service managers” which communicate with each other. …
In D1, when a new data source is added, a new agent is added to handle it. In claim 1 of the third auxiliary request, when a new data source is added, an associated data manger is added. The claimed system also allows the addition of one or more data analysis functions and an associated service manager. …
Based on the above-identified distinguishing features, the Board in charge discussed the existence of a technical effect concerning these features as follows:
2.7 The question is what technical effect, if any, is provided by the user profile and the division of tasks and interaction between the various agents.
In the Board’s view, presenting information of interest to the user based on a user profile is not technical, and cannot therefore contribute to inventive step under the “Comvik approach” (see T 641/00 – Two identities/COMVIK). …
Specifically, the Board found that this kind of customization of the data to be presented is only based on the interest of the user:
Although the presentation of information relating to a technical condition in an apparatus or system may arguably be regarded as technical (see e.g. T 115/85 – Computer-related invention and T 528/07 – Portal system/ACCENTURE), the Board does not consider that the technical character extends to the customisation of such information. The customisation is not based on any technical criteria, but merely on the interest of the user.
Against this view, the Appellant argued that the invention would, besides the customization of what is shown to the user, control communication between the claimed data managers and user assistants to provide better data. However, the Board did not follow this argument:
2.9 The Board does not see that this is a technical effect that could support the presence of an inventive step. In any personalised information system, the user profile determines how the system responds. The particular organisation of tasks, and the interaction between the various agents is, in the Board’s view a matter of software implementation.
In addition, the application underlying the present decision would lack any technical definition that could distinguish the claimed agents from a common software implementation:
The Board notes that there is no definition for what an agent is in terms of technical properties either in the application or even generally in the art (see D1, II.A). Thus, the agents in claim 1 cannot be distinguished from software modules suitable for implementing the desired functions. In the Board’s view, the internal structure of a computer program, for example the particular configuration of software modules, objects, or, indeed, “agents”, does not provide a further technical effect in the sense of T 1173/97 – Computer program product/IBM, i.e. an effect that goes beyond the normal effects of running software on a computer.
Hence, in the Board’s view, the distinguishing features could not provide any technical effect. As a result, and because the main and the first and second auxiliary requests cover the subject-matter of claim 1 of the third auxiliary request, the appeal was dismissed due to lack of inventive step according to the COMVIK approach.
You can read the whole decision here: T 2021/17 (Intelligent agents/UNIVERSITY of STRATHCLYDE)