Shuang Liu, MJLST Staffer
In June 2021, IBM presented its newest and most powerful quantum computer—Q System One. This news highlighted people’s continuing confidence and resolution in the research and development of quantum computing. As a matter of fact, several countries and leading high-tech corporations are investing from millions to billions in various aspects of quantum computing technology, and filing patent applications to protect their research achievement.
This article attempts to provide a brief introduction of quantum computing technology (Part I), a potentiometric analysis of the high-tech corporations in quantum computing industry (Part II), and a discussion of potential legal challenges in obtaining patents related to quantum software (Part III).
I. The Quantum Computing Technology and Its Potential Applications
The world’s most famous cat, Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead until it is observed. A quantum bit (“qubit”) behaves similarly—it is both 0 and 1 until it is measured. A classical computer transmits and processes n-bit information with n bits. In contrast, since a qubit represents 0 and 1 at the same time (that is, a superposition of 0 and 1), a quantum computer transmits and processes 2n-bit information with n qubits. Therefore, if a good algorithm is found and the superposition property is utilized properly, a quantum computer can compute exponentially faster than a classical computer.
However, algorithms for quantum computers (hereinafter “quantum algorithms”) are not easy to find and algorithms for classical computers (hereinafter “classical algorithms”) cannot be readily applied on quantum computers. After all, classical algorithms solve problems in a deterministic way (where bits are either 0 or 1), while a quantum computer by its nature processes probabilistic information (where bits are superpositions of 0 and 1). It took people decades to develop the first quantum algorithm that showed capability of solving real-life problems. To date, although quantum algorithms are still far from enough, the available ones do show a great potential of applications.
The first, surest application is cryptanalysis. Integer factorization plays a key role in cryptanalysis. The Shor’s algorithm, one of the most famous quantum algorithms, is able to factor all integers in polynomial time, which has not been made possible by classical algorithms so far.
Another promising application is predicting new chemicals and materials having certain properties. Properties of chemicals and materials usually depend on a variety of factors and can be too complicated for a classical computer to make simulations. A quantum computer, with a stronger computation power, is expected to be able to make such simulations. To be noted, researchers are hopeful to use a quantum computer to find a way to build materials that can be superconducting at room temperature.
Complex processes, such as biological processes, economic development modelling, energy allocation optimization, and big data processing, are also good candidates for which a quantum computer can use its exceptional computation power.
II. Patent Landscape of Leading Corporations
People’s confidence in the potential of quantum computing leads to a race in patents. In the last five years, nearly a thousand patent applications related to quantum computing have been filed in the US, and a little bit fewer before the WIPO.
The figures below show the number of applications filed by leading corporations related to quantum computing and the number of applications related to specific areas. Among them, IBM is the first active patent applicant, leading other corporations by big margins and showing interest in almost every aspect of quantum computing. Other leading applicants are interested in different aspects of quantum computing. For example, Microsoft is mainly working on the software side (machine learning and optimization), while Intel devotes its most energy on the hardware side (quantum circuits). It is also worth noting that Bank of America has filed many applications in the cryptology aspect of quantum computing—it is endeavoring to be the first to use quantum security keys to protect its data.
Turning our eyes to the world, we can see that Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, has filed a large number of quantum computing related applications before the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO). Its major interests reside in quantum communication and securing such communication with cryptographs. NEC, a Japanese electronics corporation is also an active global patent applicant. It mainly focuses on building a quantum computer itself.
III. Potential Legal Issues
In the process of obtaining a patent, the most common substantive rejections are novelty and obviousness rejections. For a quantum software application, a patent-eligibility rejection is also likely. The subsections below discuss patent-eligibility and obviousness challenges especially for quantum software applications.
A. Patent Eligibility
The case law on patent eligibility of software has been unclear and inconsistent. This subsection does not attempt to, nor can it, predict the patent eligibility of quantum software. But at least there are more arguments available for patent eligibility of quantum software than those of classical software.
Courts tend to find a software claim ineligible if it is “not tied to any particular novel machine or apparatus, only a general-purpose computer.” From a policy perspective, such claims are disfavored by courts because “[they] would risk disproportionately tying up the use of the underlying ideas and . . . pose . . . risk of pre-emption.”
To facilitate discussion and avoid confusion, the remainder of this and next subsection will discuss with claim 1 ofU.S. Pat. No. US10990677B2 (hereinafter “‘677 claim 1”):
“A method, comprising:
programming a quantum computing device to implement quantum circuits that perform a machine learning technique using one or more qubits of the quantum computing device, wherein the machine learning technique employs principal component analysis based on at least one median estimate stored as a quantum bit string . . . .”
In a nutshell, ‘677 claim 1 recites a machine learning technique implemented by a quantum computing device. It was drafted in a way that it is closely tied to the quantum computing device, in contrast to “a general-purpose computer.” Therefore, if challenged, the patentee can always argue that this method is closely tied to “a particular novel machine,” and can’t possibly preempt all use of the underlying concept in the claim.
It is worth noting that, instead of simply claiming a machine learning method implemented by a quantum computer, the claim ties the implementation with “quantum circuits” and “one or more qubits.” When drafted this way, the patentee has a strong argument that this claim is not an abstract idea under the commonly used pen and paper test,because a human cannot implement quantum circuits and/or use qubits either mentally or by a pen and a piece of paper.
Other quantum software or algorithm patents might have other arguments available. For example, the patent eligibility of an error correction algorithm patent can be supported by the fact that it greatly improved the performance of a quantum computer, which is a common theme of the current case law of patent eligibility.
As can be expected, ‘677 claim 1 has been challenged under 35 U.S.C. §103. In the Non-Final Office Action, the Examiner asserted Mork et al. in view of Kappor et al. in further view of Kerner et al. renders the claim obvious, wherein Mork discloses a classical computer implementing a similar machine learning technique, Kerner discloses a quantum computing device, and Kappor recites that “[t]he machine learning acceleration hardware . . . may comprise . . . a quantum computing device” without providing any details. Such a combination of references can be a recipe for obviousness rejections against quantum software claims.
The key for this rejection to stand is the “connecting” reference (in this example, Kappor), that is, how the classical algorithm can be connected to a quantum computing device. As discussed in Section I of this article, it’s not just that the computation powers of a classical computer and a quantum computer are different; the ways they compute are not at all the same.
Accordingly, for this specific example, the rejection is erroneous because Kappor does not provide any details of how to apply its machine learning process to a quantum computing device, let alone providing teachings of how to apply the machine learning technique disclosed by Mork to a quantum computer. In general, a reference that motivates and teaches to apply a classical algorithm on a quantum computer can be extremely difficult to find. That is because, there is few, if any, classical algorithm can be readily applied on a quantum computer!
Therefore, it is fair to say that a reference in the classical software domain is almost never effective to defeat the patentability of a quantum software.
Although quantum computing technology is still in its infancy, people are very confident in its potential. Corporations in the industries of communication, computing, electronics, and even finance have joined the patent race of quantum computing related technologies. The patent space of quantum computing technology is still quite sparce, and a patent on quantum computing can be obtained much more easily now than later.