The Kibohn - Chapter 3
The soju glasses clinked together and all six of the middle aged men downed their fiery spirits. The smell of beef ribs on the table’s grill rushed up their newly-cleared sinuses and bites of the grilled meat disappeared as the soju glasses were refilled from the green bottle. Minjun was pouring. He was the youngest, so it was his responsibility to keep the other men’s glasses from going empty.
The old friends met at this galbi restaurant every week. They had been close twenty years ago when they were teammates. Since then, though they’d drifted off to various teams and even other careers, these six friends had made it a point to stay in close contact with each other. The pro gaming world was getting smaller every year, and they were, as they constantly reminded each other, survivors. The last humans with any real value to add to their increasingly powerful AI overlords. They had to remember where they came from.
Twenty years ago, AI had struggled to gain acceptance in the gaming community. Back then, the humans were the real players, able to think creatively and develop new strategies. No computer program could hope to match the human brain on the digital battlefield. But progress marched on. AI applications began to be developed across every industry: defense, logistics, medicine, even foodservice. As these programs began to communicate with each other, the abilities of the programs grew by leaps and bounds, until the fateful day on which Alphabet’s program director took to his podium in a speech that was now more famous than any other in history. In a solemn voice, he informed humanity that a truly self-improving machine had been curated in their laboratory. It was now learning on its own, becoming more accurate, knowledgeable, and intelligent with each cycle. Technological and computing power was now irreversibly powerful.
Of course, it didn’t take long for other companies to follow suit. By the time the mergers and acquisitions had settled 10 years ago, roughly 16 companies held their own versions of the secrets of the very universe under lock and key. The AI programs were conglomerations of various software products that had been developed by subsidiaries and cobbled together at the central HQ, so the term “conjoins” had been coined to demonstrate their inter-connectivity and scope. In just one short decade, human problems like the energy grid, transportation, and economics had become child’s play for the conjoins’ impressive processing power.
Jobs dwindled quickly. From factory worker to pharmacist, PhD to manual laborer, expensive humans were thrown onto the street. How can a human add value to a world in which their skills are outshined by 16 programs that have a galaxy of data just milliseconds away?
That’s why Minjun and the survivors met every week. That’s how they could afford real meat and good soju. Their unusual, once-mocked skillset had become infinitely valuable to a digital system that didn’t understand how to be creative. The game of their youth turned out to be the perfect petri dish for innovative problem-solving. By forcing them to complete varied competitive scenarios, the conjoins could assess their mental state and use their reactions to help guide far-reaching calculations and projections.
“Minjun, more soju!” A laughing Minchul was prodding his shoulder with an empty shot glass. Minjun held his buddy’s chubby hand steady as he poured from the green glass bottle. When Minchul pulled away, Minjun noticed a flash of silver- the dermal covering on Minchul’s hand was peeling back. Korean Air had dropped their entire team a few years back, and Minchul had been teamless for a few seasons now. Perpetual repair clauses only appeared in the newest contracts, so there was no way he was covered. Minjun hoped that his friend was taking care of all his mechanical parts, but he knew that Minchul had always been the careless type. He was more apt to be caught playing professional poker in the US than practicing for his next match these days.
Minjun pulled another piece of grilled meat off the metal grate in the center of the table and dropped it into the lettuce leaf on his plate. As he added in some grilled garlic, rice, and ssamjang, he looked across the table at his old friend Jiwon. Jiwon had been there since the beginning: one of the longest-tenured players still on the circuit. Famously, Jiwon had been bounced from one conjoin to another before landing with LG last year, and it was well known that his implants and mechanizations from various former owners didn’t always play nice with the others. It was easy enough to deactivate a conjoin’s proprietary software before a player was traded, but the neural work left behind was often only as good as the portion of the player’s real brain that was left.
As he shoved the wrap into his mouth, Minjun couldn’t help but worry about Jiwon. Jiwon was known to fall completely silent sometimes, and the quiet spells seemed to happen more often lately. One moment, he would be animatedly joking about his wife and their newest daughter, and the next, he’d have his famous half-smile frozen on his face, jaw locked, eyes darting around the room furiously. The episodes only lasted a few seconds, but the strained, frightened look of his flashing brown eyes was always enough to send shivers down the spines of the other players.
Jiwon wasn’t really human anymore, even though he hadn’t changed that much. His conjoins had replaced everything about him, but it had been done so piecemeal that, bit-by-bit, the AIs were able to mask their presence and integrate with the host. Whichever AI currently controlled Jiwon knew everything about him. They knew how much he would drink, so that’s how much he drank. They knew what jokes he liked, so he made just those jokes at the right times. They knew his penchant for overeating, so Jiwon had gained 3.2 pounds per year every year since his initial biostatics had been loaded up.
Minjun chewed his galbi and savored the rich flavor in his mouth. Galbi nights always reminded of his father, who had snuck him and his brother to a galbi restaurant once a month when his mother was at her coffee shop for book club. When she got home, she must have noticed the strong BBQ smells the boys were wearing, but she never chastised them. Minjun wondered if Jiwon enjoyed the same memories he did. They weren’t important for playing, and they didn’t serve the conjoin. Was it possible that they’d been removed somehow to make space for more processing power?
At that moment, Jiwon froze again, and the table fell briefly silent. No one was ever quite sure what the protocol was when this happened. Minjun swallowed and realized how little of Jiwon must have mattered to his owners. He still looked and sounded like their old friend for the most part, but was it just because the conjoin knew how he should look and sound? When he threw back a shot, was he really having a good time, or were the parameters of his sociability just triggered by the alcohol to increase by a precise fraction of a percentage?
Minjun supposed he’d never know. Only Jiwon and LG would ever know. And even if he was experiencing anything, he certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them. Minjun shakily poured himself a brimming shot of soju and very specifically turned his head away from his silent, patiently waiting companions before he threw it back.