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Although solid progress towards a fully digitalised end-to-end patent granting process and workflows had already been made by early 2020, the pandemic accelerated those efforts. By April 2020, a minimum viable product (MVP) for a paperless search and examination workflow was delivered to support examiners, formalities officers and line managers in the core processing steps for European patent search and examination files.
This agile methodology of delivering an MVP in rapid, frequent iterations proved to be a highly effective way of driving digital transformation forward. By the end of 2020, 97% by volume of workflows with a basic functionality had been digitalised. This meant that examiner and formalities officer actions, as well as preparations for oral proceedings, were no longer paper-based and could be carried out remotely.
These workflows were progressively integrated into the Patent Workbench, the EPO's single digital platform for the patent granting process, establishing it as the single interface for interactions between examiners and formalities officers in the future. Staff were also offered extensive training and support to help them adapt to the new tools. Another crucial development was the introduction of digital annotations of patent applications and related prior-art documents. In a teleworking world, digital annotations are critical to new ways of working that promote collaboration and efficiency in the patent granting process.
In 2020, the EPO continued to improve its internal patent information search engine, ANSERA (Another Search ERA), particularly in terms of its usability and performance. Application documents, examiner notes and specialist databases are now searchable in ANSERA. In 2020, the tool was also enhanced to offer digital highlights and sticky notes, as well as improved support for sketches on drawings, marking of objections and the tagging of relevant claimed features.
Last year the EPO launched its first set of projects on the artificial intelligence (AI)-based processing of patent text and images, covering computer vision, natural language processing and machine translation. As part of one of these projects, for example, the EPO's Data Science team built new pre-classification AI models to provide an in-house alternative to outsourced software used to define which team should work on incoming applications.
In September 2020, a machine learning code challenge was run for internal staff to demonstrate their coding and AI skills. The challenge was to automatically apply climate change mitigating technology classification symbols (Y02/Y04) to patent documents.
Over 40 teams took part, and the winners were invited to work on new projects with the Data Science team. One of the core technologies made available for this challenge was an in house BERT model trained solely on millions of patent documents.
By the end of the year, an in-house machine translation system for translating German and French documents into English had also been built, tested and deployed by the Data Science team. Run in the EPO's Luxembourg data centre, it can be used to translate unpublished patent documents.
Promoting in-house IT development not only gives the EPO tailormade tools and software solutions, it also reduces dependency on external providers, accelerates development cycles and creates new opportunities for multitalented staff to shine.
2020 saw the launch of several initiatives aimed at enhancing EPO users1 online experience. They include projects to revamp the epo.org website, enhance customer care and introduce a new "user area" portal. Work on the EPO's Online Filing 2.0 service also continued with a pilot for European patent (EP) and Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) filings with external users in the second quarter of 2020. After integrating user feedback, a second pilot was launched that added EP and PCT subsequently filed documents.
A design concept for the epo.org website was developed to provide more user-friendly access to online content and services on different screen sizes ranging from desktop to mobile devices. Users from both the patent industry and non-specialist groups were involved in validating and improving the concept.
The new user area portal will make it easier and more convenient for applicants and representatives to work with their application portfolio, filing and electronic notifications. Inspired by user feedback, a design prototype was created that will be tested and shaped by a focus group.
As part of our continued drive to improve customer care, a state-of-the-art customer service management tool will also help the EPO improve its handling of enquiries and complaints.
Ultimately, all of these projects – and many more in the pipeline – aim to make it simpler and faster for applicants to file patents with the EPO and boost user satisfaction with EPO products and services.
1 Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) is a Transformer-based machine learning technique for natural language processing pre-training developed by Google.
The EPO's digital administration efforts were hugely accelerated in response to the COVID 19 crisis. Creating a fully mobile workforce involved rolling out 5 800 laptops for all staff over the course of 2020, as well as completing the rollout of Windows 10 and Microsoft Office 365.
The need to support oral proceedings requiring simultaneous interpreting also prompted the EPO to look for an alternative technical platform to its existing setup. After a thorough security assessment, Zoom was selected as a platform for oral proceedings in opposition. Zoom not only allows for simultaneous interpreting, but also enables remote attendance by the general public.
Early in 2020, the EPO's SAP environment was redeployed to SAP's private cloud. As a result, the SAP relational database that was running on the EPO's mainframe DB2 was moved to the latest technology, SAP HANA. Another step towards cloud-based services was the migration from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams (MS Teams). Functionalities were expanded to enable effective remote working and improved communication and collaboration, and MS Teams is now the default platform for all internal video meetings, messaging and calling, as well as working collaboratively on documents.
These digital communication and collaboration tools will become increasingly important as the Office takes its first steps towards the "new normal".
Cybersecurity is an area that assumed even greater importance in 2020, requiring significant investment by the EPO to ensure a safe working environment for staff members connecting to the Office's IT systems remotely.
In 2020, a highly privileged account management system was implemented to manage control over highly privileged access across the IT environment. This system helps to prevent any damage arising from external attacks, as well as securing confidential data from unauthorised users.
Enhanced cyberdefence capabilities were also implemented on all EPO workstations to protect staff from cyberattacks such as phishing. To assess the quality of its systems, the Office also simulated ISO 27001 certification in 2020.
Last year the EPO started decommissioning its IBM mainframe, completed the preparation of its Luxembourg data centre and started re-platforming related systems. In view of the EPO's increasing reliance on its IT infrastructure, this is a crucial part of boosting the reliability and availability of the EPO's IT systems and ensuring business continuity.
After the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, it became clear that the Office would need to expand its infrastructure to support teleworking. Two key steps were taken: its virtual private network (VPN) was expanded with 4 000 extra licences and an additional 10 Gb internet connection was installed to the newly equipped data centre in Luxembourg.
This represented a tenfold increase in the capacity of the lines in Munich and The Hague. It also allowed all EPO traffic to and from the internet to be routed via the new data centre.