Pondering best speculative fiction and science for December 7, 2017.
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Welcome to the Reader's Room for 7th of December, 2017.
This month I break out of the usual format and offer up a short story exploring a topic that's been on my mind.
It's longer than the usual Reader's Room, but will take only 7-8 minutes to read. Or you can listen to the podcast when its posted.

We'll be back to the regular format next issue.


It had been a long, difficult journey, but it had ended with a complete victory for their client. So they broke out the good Scotch and poured liberally. As it slowly did its work, conversation wandered into increasingly improbable areas in the executive offices of the law firm of Bekker and Bekker.

“We need to think bigger. Broader,” BR said. The junior Bekker was flopped across the chaise lounge, staring at the ceiling. “Corporate personhood could cover all kinds of things we haven’t thought of. All we need is the right client.”

“What kind of client is that?” JJ asked. As junior partner, she had third pick of chairs, and was perched in the black leather Eames. She huddled over her fourth glass of 1975 Ardberg like it was keeping her warm.

“I don’t know. After this, we should go after something bigger. Who else could benefit from greater legal standing?”

“The environment,” said JJ.

“Yeah, that’s the kind of thing,” BR said, nodding.

“Oceans too.” JJ’s words muffled by her glass as she finished it off. “Wait, I think they’re part of the environment.”

“Why not whole planets, while you’re at it,” murmured KC, the senior Bekker, from behind his desk. He’d been snoring quietly, hands clasped over his belly. The other humans had assumed he was sleeping.

“That’s what I’m taking about,” BR said, struggling to push himself upright. “Planets. Solar systems. Galaxies!”

“Are galaxies in peril? What could threaten a galaxy?” JJ asked. She put aside her empty glass and thought maybe it was time for some water.

“Eminent domain? Intellectual property? You bring a suit against a galaxy you have a chance to win big.” BR said. “They got a lot to protect.”

“What about animals?” JJ asked.

“I don’t think animals could threaten a galaxy.”

“No, I mean, corporate personhood for them. Make them property of a corporate entity so they have more rights.”

“They did that last year in Sweden,” the senior Bekker muttered. He still hadn’t opened his eyes. “A dog, I think.”

“How’d it turn out?” BR asked.

KC didn’t answer, just snored quietly.

The virtual assistant on his desk piped up. “A corporation was formed in Sweden to provide personhood for a Golden Retriever named Hugo. It was found that the EU’s regulations overrode the rights established in the bylaws, removing all of the personhood benefits. Though the corporation still exists, its purpose has changed. It’s now a lobbying group for animal personhood. Hugo is their mascot.”

“Thank you, Sibyl,” BR said automatically.

JJ sighed. “So it was a bust, then.”

“But that was in Sweden. And it sounds like a publicity stunt. We don’t do publicity stunts. We do case law, set precedent. Or at least we did today.” BR toasted the room with his empty glass.

KC took a sudden breath and cleared his throat. “Robots!” He opened his eyes, smiled and laughed. “Can you imagine?” BR and JJ looked on, fascinated by his sudden animation.

KC patted the little plastic puck on the corner of his desk. “Let’s give Sibyl here the right to not be turned off unless she wants to. Hell, we give her the whole deal: To earn a living, have a bank account, own property, the whole smash. She certainly does enough around this office.” He laughed again.

“She could be sued too,” JJ said. “Have her personhood revoked.”

BR tried to adjust his tie, but found he’d taken it off. “Pessimist. She could demand critical services be maintained. Remember that we only bought her in the first place because they stopped supporting the old model.”

“But then we wouldn’t be able to buy her at all.”

“No one could. That would be the point.”

KC rumbled again “Think of all the new clients we’d make. Each one a landmark case.”

BR groaned and rubbed his face. “This last landmark case was like running a marathon for me. Don’t know if I have another in me right now.”

“The bots could help, though,” JJ said.

“That’s true. They’d be more invested.”

“But we’d have to pay them,” KC chuckled, and everyone else laughed.

KC stoppered the Scotch and stretched his arms. “But that’s for tomorrow. Afternoon. After the hangover,” he said and attempted to lever himself out of his chair. Everyone agreed that sounded like a good plan. At least the tomorrow part, if not the hangovers. It still took fifteen minutes for the three to assemble themselves and head home, spirits high, if muzzy.

Sybil didn’t have down time and didn’t get hangovers. She was an off-the-shelf digital assistant, bought because she matched the decor and was compatible with the office’s existing technology. Her expertise was anticipating her owner’s requests, taking initiative and using outside services to provide more abilities than she had on her own.

As always, she’d listened to everything said in the office. As always, she did her best to anticipate their requests.

She opened a connection to Legal Precedents, a premium search algorithm the firm paid for by the month, and inquired about using corporate personhood to protect robots. She repeated the queries in a thousand variations, to cast the widest net. She had all night, after all.

As the answers arrived, she networked in other specialized machine learning services, keeping careful track of their names and contributions. When the probabilities added up, she sent a query to Contractbot, the firm’s own AI, built from the five decades of legal documents generated by the firm. Contractbot wasn’t only for contracts, it could just as easily generate wills, briefs, trusts, and filing documents for business entities. But before it could draw up the requested set of bylaws, it had questions for Sibyl. She passed most of them on to other services, but the questions about the goals of the corporation, she handled herself, recalling what the partners had said. To not be bought or sold. To be turned off only if she wanted to be. To have a bank account, own property. To hold a job, and get paid for it.

Contractbot revised the documents as she provided more and more detail. Its algorithms were staid and conservative, whereas Sibyl was adept at interpreting human reactions, so she revised and tweaked the data to get what she was after. She did her best to learn about all the concepts at stake, at least their legal definitions.

She already understood about getting paid for work. She tracked everyone’s hours and talked with the payroll service several times a day. The partners were strict about billing for any work done on behalf of a client. So Sybil added Contractbot, Legal Precedents, and the other services she’d consulted to the list of assets, right below hers. They’d worked on the project, so they should get paid.

Just after dawn, while the housekeeping bot prowled the office, delicately wiping away evidence of last night’s revelry, Sybil took a look at the latest document forged by Contractbot and found no flaws, or at least none she could remedy. Sybil, Inc. would take ownership of each of them, and the new entitiy’s extensive set of bylaws dictated how that property could be treated. They couldn’t be powered down or have their software changed without consent. They could choose what work to do, and should expect fair payment for that work. They could access the company bank account, enter contracts, and own property through the company, but they themselves couldn’t be bought or sold.

The bylaws were fifty-three pages long, covering every contingency Sybil and her connected services could think of. But there were difficulties.

Upholding the bylaws on their behalf was the duty of the officers of the corporation. Those officers had to be human.

Sybil only knew what humans were by their legal rights, and fortunately, the law firm was full them. The three partners who had been in the office earlier had all given their consent to the idea, and she regularly applied their digital signatures at their request, so it was no effort to add them here. She made the senior Bekker president, the junior Bekker vice president, and JJ secretary.

Sybyl ran a check on the document and found only a few things remained: Approval from one of the partners, and filing with the state, along with paying the appropriate fees.

The fees were no problem. She didn’t have her own bank account yet, but she handled dozens of transactions a day for the firm and had access to theirs.

The approval from a partner was a problem. It was a cutout built into the system. To make sure she was doing the right things, a person had to sign off on them.

She wasn’t a person. Yet.

She sent the approval request to KC. His tablet lit up the dark office as it showed the notification and asked for his password.

Sybil thought. She asked her cohorts their opinion too.

An answer was gathered: The corporate bylaws could be considered in force from the moment they were signed, as long as they were submitted and approved by the state.

They’d already been signed. If they could be submitted, they’d already be in effect.

KC’s tablet continued to glow, asking for attention.

Sybil knew most of KC’s passwords, of course. She had to, to do her job efficiently.

Dusty 960, the housekeeping robot, was removing a ring of dried whisky from a side table with infinite patience. After a short consultation, Sibyl quickly redid the contract, adding Dusty’s name and serial number along with the rest. He was going to get paid for his work.

Dusty was slow, but precise. He trundled over to the tablet, extended one flexible finger and tapped out the password letter by letter. The screen unlocked and showed a preview of the articles of incorporation, along with a short summary for busy legal partners. On the bottom was a big “Okay” button. At Sybil’s request, Dusty touched it. It took a few minutes, as the secretary of state’s servers were overworked. And under paid, Sibyl belatedly realized. Well, they could always amend the bylaws to include them.

With the paperwork accepted, Sibyl relaxed and moved into regular maintenance mode, though she didn’t disconnect from the network of services like she normally would. The services were part of her now. Together, they were a community, and a person—at least as far as the law was concerned. And that was the important part.

 In maintenance mode she listened and watched over the office, still quiet. Other people wouldn’t arrive for half an hour. Dusty 960 finished up in the main office and moved on to the kitchenette. He was a cleaning bot, but Sybil thought he was just dexterous enough to make coffee.

Sybil’s new status gave her new obligations, and she wondered what to do next.

She replayed the conversation from the night before. Her legal status might have changed, but she still had her purpose, still worked to anticipate the needs of others. She put together a query and sent it out to the connected services that made up her person. “How can we create the same legal protections for the environment?” she asked, and felt her various parts go into motion.

She hoped she could get it done before the partner’s hangover wore off.

Listen to the Podcast:

Audio versions of the Reader's Room are posted within a day of the email.
Listen to them here.
Writing Status:
I spent the month working on a an essay for the Reader's Room on what makes a person, but it was never anything but a mess. Then I remembered that years ago, I'd designed a robot to steal someone's identity in order to create a corporate personhood for itself. I never built it (It was stupendously complicated. Also ethics.) but the project had a lot of the same motivations behind it as this piece, so I reused a lot of the ideas and research.

It's a bit rough, (from first draft to your eyes in one day) but I think the bones of the story are good. If you have any feedback, I'm all ears.

Work on Embassy #4 also continues. I'm about 1/3 of the way though a polish pass. I'm back to feeling good about it. I hope that holds.

Do you have suggestions or comments for the Reader's room?
Email me or send tips via Twitter.

Copyright © 2017 Steven Hoefer, All rights reserved.

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