A new era of technological development characterised by digital transformation is rapidly gathering momentum – one which is frequently referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Driven by the emergence of the Internet of Things, 4IR encompasses a number of other technologies, such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) as well, making it possible to fully exploit the potential of smart objects in most sectors of the economy. Businesses, industries, analysts, policymakers and many others are starting to discuss its characteristics in greater detail as well as the challenges and opportunities the revolution presents. Given that 4IR is primarily driven by technological progress and therefore by patented inventions, the EPO has unique insight into its evolution.
As the world's main provider of patent information, the EPO is well placed to observe the emergence of 4IR technologies. As such, we have unveiled a major technology trend that has been observed across a whole range of technical fields by users of the European patent system and the broader public. Last December, in co-operation with the Handelsblatt Research Institute, we published our first landscaping study of patents in this area.
The study, called "Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution", found that while patent applications have grown steadily in the last three years, 4IR technologies have far outpaced other sectors and achieved a 54% increase.
More than 5 000 patent applications for inventions relating to autonomous objects were filed at the EPO in 2016 alone. Connectivity and the application domains Personal (e.g., smart portable medical devices) and Enterprise (e.g. automated inventory) have attracted the largest numbers of such patent applications so far, while the fastest-growing fields are 3D (56%), AI (43%) and User interfaces (43%).
The study sets out both the leading patent applicants involved in 4IR and the regions of origin of the patent applications filed with the EPO for 4IR inventions. It highlights that in 2016, Europe, the United States and Japan were the main innovation centres, with the Republic of Korea and China growing fast. Within Europe, Germany and France are foremost in 4IR innovation, with complementary strengths. Germany stands out in the application domains of vehicles, infrastructure and manufacturing, while France leads in enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence, security, user interfaces and 3D systems. In terms of regions, the greater Paris area (Île-de-France) and the greater Munich area (Oberbayern) lead Europe in 4IR technologies.
Asian companies are well represented among the top 25 4IR applicants and together account for 46% of all 4IR applications filed with the EPO between 2011 and 2016. Of these top 25 applicants, twelve are from Asia, of which seven are from Japan, three from China and two from the Republic of Korea. Inventions from the Republic of Korea and China have been increasing at a faster rate than in other regions in recent years.
The EPO is responding to these developments to ensure that no matter what the field of technology, inventors can rely on the highest quality patents and services. The EPO has a well-established policy in place for examining patents in the area of computer-implemented inventions, and regular improvements to our guidelines are made to provide a consistent, harmonised procedure. With EPO patent examiners working in three-member "divisions" when examining patents, we are already able to cover multiple technical areas. This is all the more important now that inventions are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and ICT is permeating so many other areas. The EPO implemented a significant re-organisation to ensure that its structure reflects the changes in the rapidly evolving areas of ICT, computer-implemented inventions and, more widely, 4IR. The ICT area of the Office now comprises around 2 000 staff members. The EPO has already started to use some of the latest technologies that are playing a crucial role in 4IR. Our machine-translation service, Patent Translate, for example, has reached previously unimaginable levels of accuracy by deploying the latest neural machine translation technology.