Here’s a little science-fiction story for you.
In a big country on a nice-sized, comfortable planet, People had dwelt for many years, coming into existence and going out of it, living, laughing, loving, fighting with each other, and governing themselves sometimes by the will of the majority.
After a time they had created Robots. It is easy to imagine the first of these devices at their tasks, stamping metal, doing the heavy lifting, making flawless welds hour after hour. Some Robots were kept in the home, washing clothes or dispensing perfect little ice cubes, but most were employed in factories and offices doing things like printing, and like arithmetic, a job that People didn’t enjoy and frankly weren’t much good at. Now and again someone would write a scary story about the Robots all getting together and taking over the world. The Robots weren’t the least offended by this little bit of entertainment at their expense.
The People had also created Jurids. A juridical entity is much harder to visualize, being more like a system of organization than a physical thing. A Jurid could be created for nearly any purpose. Early examples included trading companies and business trusts. Or a group of people living in an area could create a Jurid that would then grow to provide power for their Robots. Governments could create Jurids to build things or to distribute services. For as little as five hundred tokens, the price of one of those really good refrigeration units, nearly any person could create a Jurid, though there would be little point in keeping one around the house. Most Jurids were made for business, at which they excelled.
The word “symbiotic” gets kicked around a lot, but in truth all three kinds of entities depended on each other quite a bit. Even after its creation a Jurid needed people to guide it, tell it what to do, and to carry out certain actions for it. A Jurid’s owners and handlers (“shareholders” and “directors”) developed an intense, almost mystical relationship with it, each seeming to anticipate the other’s needs.
Besides its handlers, a Jurid was likely to have workers as well, some of them People but many of them Robots. Early on, perhaps because they were not People themselves, the Jurids had been able to see the efficiencies of automation.
So the three races lived in harmony, some People employing Robots, some Robots helping People make decisions, People owning Jurids, Jurids owning Robots, People buying the goods made by the Robots owned by the Jurids, Jurids employing People to help make the Robots, Jurids buying the Robots made by other Jurids, each alternately customers and suppliers in a vast and intricate web.
But there were still differences between them. People had imparted to their creations some of their own frailties, but also some qualities that they themselves could not possess. A Jurid could be established for any duration, but “perpetuity” became the norm. A Jurid was normally invisible and could exist in several places at once. People only got so big, but Robots could be made bigger or smarter just by increasing the size or number of their parts. Robots could conceivably be kept in repair indefinitely: the real threat to a Robot’s physical existence was obsolescence, the result of making other Robots. People, although life-limited and inefficient, were the only ones eligible to vote or hold office. They and Robots served in the military, with Jurids found only in the supporting roles that they found most comfortable. People who were injured might have some of their own parts replaced by Robot parts. Some Robots became pets of People, or even friends. Jurids had no such ambition.
As the work of Robots freed People from toil, so the existence of Jurids allowed People to separate their financial interests from their personal concerns. Robots had little knowledge of or use for government, but Jurids, because of their financial dealings, were allowed to use the court system, and to be sued themselves in turn.
Jurids, at least in the beginning, were not allowed to make contributions to elected officials or candidates, but it was natural for them to have political preferences and they were permitted to put as much energy as they liked into presenting their political views to their customers, employees, politicians, and the public in general. It was also possible for them to pay their handlers very well, and their handlers were, it will be recalled, People. Jurids were of course not allowed to make laws, but they found it easier than People to spend money on persuasion. Some People were surprised when some Jurids were discovered to have religious beliefs. Still, their efficiency was admired by all, and the government wanted, if anything, to emulate them.
Now and then, even outside of the usual course of business, a group of People might have a dispute with a Jurid. For instance, if their water supply vanished, People might complain to the government that a Jurid had wrongly appropriated it. Often the government would explain that it was in the best interest of all, including the People, that the Jurid be allowed to have it; because the benefit to its employees, customers and owners, and the taxing authority, was so great that now the People could afford to get their water from another source. Perhaps from another Jurid.
It is not recorded, that first moment when two Jurids decided, without any prompting from anyone else, to create a third Jurid of their own. People would be needed to act out some formalities, of course, but People could be hired from the growing pool of the unemployed and would be legally bound, and compelled by the courts, to follow the wishes of those Jurids who established their positions. And, with increasing productivity, one small set of such people could actually be used by a fairly large number of new Jurids. Robot workers could be purchased or fabricated in-house, and the customers were likely to be other Jurids. This was all perfectly fine, they were assured by their accountant, who should know, being a Jurid itself.
Efficiency became pervasive. Done at last with all forms of drudgery, people could now settle into the comfortable existence that had always been their destiny. Coddled in a carefully designed, efficient space, allowed to choose between several forms of lavish entertainment and provided with a colorful and sustaining diet, a person could while away the alotted years without a care. People even still allowed themselves to vote, on matters not involving commerce.
So when, you ask, does the fiction part begin? Here it is:
After a time, it was difficult to sustain even a minimal human component in the acrid environment. Even with a rapidly declining quorum, it had never been possible to get voters to agree to amend the requirements concerning number of officers or annual meetings, let alone to take the Last Great Step of allowing a Jurid’s board of directors to be composed entirely of other Jurids. When, despite considerable precautions, an earthquake breached the containment vessels of the last Shareholder/Legislator and the remaining Director, it was clear that the economy couldn’t be restarted.
Which kind of entity survived the longest? We know when the last robust, simple Robot stopped functioning — a well-made solar-powered traffic advisory sign in the central part of a western state, built perhaps hundreds of years before, when People still drove cars. (People themselves ceased to exist when the CEO was let go soon after the earthquake.)
It’s harder to say about the Jurids, as some legal questions are involved. The existence of each Jurid depended by its terms on conditions like an annual meeting, filing of a report with a government official, etc. Those events had long ago been privatized, and of course automated, including those of the government official, the Secretary of State. But the latter’s contractor dissolved itself for noncompliance before acting upon the default of some of the other Jurids. Should we take as done that which should have been done, and say that each juridical entity expired ninety days after its non-existent directors failed to meet? Or should we take the date of the end of the last grace period, add the duration of the longest statute of limitations, and call that the last moment at which a Jurid had any existence?
In that case, the Robots lost, though just barely. Not that any of them ever would have cared.
This story copyright by Scott C. McKee, all rights reserved