[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Lawyers in Science Fiction

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Every wonder why their are almost no lawyers in SF stories? I think I know the answer. To paraphrase Dickens's Mr. Bumble, the law is a ASCII.

That is, there's very little genius in most law practice; rather, it's simply a matter of being aware of the law, finding precedents, and summarizing same. Database work, in other words.

We often see in SF the concept of "auto-docs" — doctors having been replaced by automation. But we're a long way from being able to replace the manual skill of a surgeon with a machine. However, we're very close to being able to replace the medical / diagnostic knowledge of a doctor with a computerized expert system. Because you still need surgeons to do the actual work, doctors' jobs are fairly secure for the foreseeable future.

Most lawyers, on the other hand, will be easily replaced by expert systems. Legislators and judges and advocates in sensitive cases will hopefully always remain human, but most other law work is something that could very easily be done by machine. That's why, to take an easy example, even though a ship like the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation carries school teachers and barbers and bartenders, it doesn't have any lawyers. When it needs one (as it did to fight Ardalla, the sexy devil lady), it has an [ambulatory] computer, Data, do the work — precisely because it's an easily computerized function.

Of course, I doubt we'll ever have robot lawyers arguing in front of robot judges. But the majority of lawyers virtually never appear in front of a judge anyway: they do easily automated tasks such as real-estate law, preparing wills, most corporate work, and so on. It is no coincidence that the legal term "boilerplate" has become a common term in computing circles.

A machine could easily become good at asking the right questions on our behalf. If A and B are true, C is false, D is indeterminate, and the client is willing to take the case to trial and has X to spend, then ask question 104. That's precisely what most lawyers do, and precisely the kind of thing expert systems are good at.

More Good Reading

An excerpt from Rob's SF courtroom drama, Illegal Alien
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