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:

Key takeaways

The customisation of information to be displayed according to the interest of a user is not technical.

The invention

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)

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.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2021/17 (Intelligent agents/UNIVERSITY of STRATHCLYDE)

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