Society & culture

A machine to predict the future

Can you predict the future? Most people would say absolutely not, certainly not in the sense of making highly accurate forecasts about what or when something will happen. But not everyone agrees. Dirk Helberg from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has suggested a scientifically based way of putting all the world’s data into a single super computer, which then predicts the future. Astonishingly, perhaps, the debt-ridden European Union is considering giving Helberg one billion euros to build such a machine.

The idea, in a nutshell, is an extension of the Big Data idea. Take every bit of available data across economics, government, cultural trends, energy, agriculture, health, and technological developments, linked with data on climate and weather to create a Living Earth Simulator or FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator, as it’s called. Why would such an idea work? Because Mr Helberg says he’s done it before – kind of. Helberg built a system to model highway traffic, which showed that reducing the distance between vehicles resulted in an end to stop-go delays. The only proviso was you had to reduce the space between moving vehicles so much that you needed self-driving cars to make it work. Moreover, a highway is less complex than the whole earth with seven billion highly emotional, at times irrational and occasionally anarchic human inhabitants.

As Gary Kind, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard says, agent-based modelling only works with a narrow set of circumstances. For instance, how do you model the emotional impact of the death of a world leader, the arrival of UFOs, $200 oil or 9/11? The timing of these events is surely impossible to predict and there are always complex feedback loops. Moreover, we do not have a rigorous model for human behaviour and humans, ultimately, are at the heart of what Helberg wants to model.

It’s true that, with enough data, one can build sophisticated models, even if we do not understand the laws governing certain types of behaviour. We can look for patterns and anomalies and these may be used to predict outcomes or create policy. We are also on the cusp of a world with unparalleled volumes of data and analytical sophistication.

Nevertheless, predicting precisely where and when a financial market will collapse or a global pandemic will start is vastly more complex than predicting highway traffic flows. We can’t even agree on what will happen in financial markets tomorrow, let alone next year or in five years time. In my opinion, Helberg is falling face first into a number of huge traps.

First, his idea is dependent upon extrapolation from historical data. He is assuming that everything has a rational explanation and everything can be measured and modelled. But I’d argue things often happen for no observable reason (dumb luck) or, even when there’s a clear reason, you cannot accurately predict the chain of events that follows.

Take 17 December 2010 for instance. How can you create a machine that predicts a street vendor in a small Tunisian town will on this day set himself on fire and his protest will create a string of popular revolutions across the Middle East? You might observe that the conditions are right for such an event, eventually, but you can’t say when or where. It’s like an area of land that contains dry kindling: one day it will be set on fire, but you cannot say when, how far or how fast the fire will break out and subsequently spread.

Apart from complexity and chaos, humans may not accept what the machine says. What if, for example, the machine says, to prevent a health pandemic, we need to kill a democratically elected politician? It would make no sense to us so should we do it? We would grasp the problem, perhaps, but we could not comprehend the machine’s solution. Moreover, if the machine made several suggestions, how would we decide which course of action to take?

Another issue is self-fulfilling prophecy. If a trusted model says something will happen, then a prediction can impact the situation being modelled. This happened recently in the UK when the government said that a fuel tanker strike might give rise to fuel shortages. Everyone took this prediction at face value and went into panic mode, thereby creating a fuel shortage. Finally, a centralised system of data collection and analysis is a very old fashioned idea. Instead, why not create clouds of open data via the internet and give everyone access to everything. An open data format would encourage participation, collaboration and fruitful disagreement. This would, most probably, cost far less and work far better.

Re: Scientific American (US) December 2011, ‘The machine that would predict the future’ by D. Weinberger.
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Search words: Big data, prediction, forecasting
Trend tags: Big Data

Self-tracking technology

Outside dieting and perhaps sport, people who collect data about themselves might be considered a little odd, but new small, low-cost technologies may be about to change all that. Self-tracking is a trend linked to health 2.0, telemedicine and mobile therapy, where individuals monitor almost everything they do on a daily basis. For example, how many steps are taken, how often (and how much) alcohol, water or coffee is consumed, or whether particular foods affect mood.

Who is doing this? Currently, self-tracking is largely the preserve of computer geeks, fitness freaks and the self-improvement fraternity in the US, but the trend is set to take off more or less everywhere. The idea isn’t new – people have been weighing themselves or keeping information about what they spend or consume for years. But digital and mobile technologies make it cheaper and more convenient to collect and link these data.

For example, Zeo is a headband that tracks sleep quantity and quality. Individuals using this device can upload their sleep data, compare it with data created by other users and can experiment with various ways to improve sleep quality. This can be frivolous, but it can be serious for insomniacs. Another example of self-tracking is Spiroscount. This is a sensor attached to an asthma inhaler and GPS that allows people with asthma to see which physical environments or locations make their condition better or worse. Another company called Greengoose allows individuals to attach small motion sensors to different objects ranging from toothbrushes to running shoes, to record when they are used.

This is potentially useful stuff, especially when data are linked to vast amounts of data produced by other people with the same concerns or goals through crowd-sourced or open medical websites, such as PatientsLikeMe or CureTogether. People can also use what’s termed “gamification”. This is where activities and behaviour are linked to real or virtual rewards, which can be used, for instance, by governments to alter behaviour like financial planning or smoking.

There are potential problems with this idea. Self-tracking, like self-experimentation, can lack rigor and controls and there’s always the danger of placebo effects. Nevertheless, with rapidly aging populations and rising levels of public debt, health tracking, especially via mobile devices, will become a significant mainstream trend. (Interestingly, the story above is a kind of globe-tracking, a macro version of the self-tracking trend).

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK) 3 March 2012, Technology & Health: ‘Counting every moment.’ Anon.
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Search words: Big data, tracking, data trails, gamification

A forthcoming surveillance state?

Under new anti-terrorism plans, the UK government plans to keep details of every single phone call, email and text message sent in Britain. It won’t be done directly: instead, every landline telephone company, mobile phone company and broadband provider will be made to intercept and store the data for 12 months and make the data available if requested.

Current plans do not include the content of these messages, but rather the date and time, sender and recipient of the message, but government agencies may request real time access. The policy, developed on the advice of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, is a re-worked version of a plan originally withdrawn in late 2009 in which 653 government and semi-government organisations were to be given access.

So what’s next? It seems inevitable that central governments around the world will want to mine the mountains of digital data that their citizens are, knowingly or unknowingly, broadcasting. This is because observed behaviour can be used to save more, target spending or reveal real and imagined threats against the state and its citizens. The UK plan is just the beginning and more countries will follow suit.

As to whether surveillance will make life safer or more certain is open to debate. Certainty (see story above) does not exist and whilst things can always be made safer risks cannot be entirely removed. Used correctly such surveillance is possibly a good thing, but the security of the data cannot be guaranteed and by concentrating data in a handful of locations we may actually be making the data more vulnerable to hackers.

Ref: Sunday Telegraph (UK) 19 February 2012, ‘State can spy on your phone calls, texts and emails’, by D. Barrett.
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Search words: Privacy, surveillance, data, big data
Trend tags: Tracking

Falling IQ

IQ tests and the value of IQ testing is controversial, but people do agree IQ scores have been slowly rising in developed regions for around 100 years. How do we interpret the findings of a new study that says IQ scores in the UK have started to fall? The study is significant because it was conducted by James Flynn, the man responsible for the ‘Flynn effect’, which observed IQ scores always go up over time.

His 2009 study compared IQ test scores received by UK teens between 1980 and 2008 and found the average had fallen by 2 IQ test points on average, and by up to 6 points in the top 50% of test takers. The findings are mirrored in Denmark. A Danish study from 1959-2004 found IQ results in men rose from 1959 to the late 1990s and fell after that. At the very least, the increase in IQ appears to be slowing down and, in a few cases, reversing. Given that a nation’s economic success seems to be linked to average IQ (see IQ and Global Inequality, Flynn & Vanhanen, 2006) this is a cause for concern. A drop of 6 IQ points equates to a fall of 0.3% in GDP.

So why the perceived drop? Some commentators point to the internet and the dumbing down of education, especially fixation with exam results. Others cite youth culture and even lifestyle and diet. Clearly IQ scores cannot rise forever, but have we reached a plateau and has the widespread use of digital knowledge cramped our IQ?

Ref: Prospect (UK) April 2012, ‘Received wisdom’ by P. Hunter.
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Search words: IQ, IQ Tests, intelligence
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Electronic opiates

Feral urgency. It’s a phrase used to describe how people switch their mobiles on (or switch their attention towards them) as soon as they wake up. Nomophobia is the same – fear of losing a mobile phone or being out of contact with everyone and everything that matters (they think). According to a UK study, 53% of UK mobile users suffered from nomophobia in 2008, compared to 66% in 2012. Women are slightly more affected – or infected – than men (70% versus 61%). Another study has found that British users check their mobiles 34 times a day (seems low!) and a significant number never ever switch their phones off.

Why are these figures on the up? One reason is more people have these devices. Another is that these devices are becoming smarter and therefore more useful, or so we think. The mobile is possibly the iconic, totemic, object of the new century so far. It has replaced address books, diaries, encyclopaedia, photo albums, music collections and maps and is slowly replacing wallets and keys.

But what happens to society when parents see more of their children on a screen than in the flesh? What happens to education when any bit of information can be found at any time of day? What happens to office timekeeping when we can always call to say we’re running late? What happens to reality when it can be blocked or watered down?

According to a US study by Sara Konrath, there has been a 40% drop in empathy among college students over the last 20 or 30 years, which roughly correlates with developments in media over the same period. If you look at prescriptions for ADHD over the last 20 years, this also correlates with the expansion of the internet and the use of personal digital devices. Such findings may be anomalies, but we need to keep a close eye on this.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 19.2.12, ‘Hello, there’s a whole world beyond the mobile’, by D. Goodwin.
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Search words: Mobile phones, attention, empathy, distraction, mobile computing
Trend tags: Digital culture

The limits to growth

In the 1970s, a few scientists explored what the next 100 years might look like if global population and industrialisation kept increasing, based on available data from 1900-1972. Using computer models, they projected a series of collapses where economic growth would eventually slow down and stop completely, as population increased and finite resources ran out. In other words, economic growth is limited because the Earth is itself limited.

Instead of things slowly stabilising or oscillating around peak levels, they projected a huge boom then bust in population and industrial capacity, due to complex feedback loops and delays in response. For instance, more economic output means more money to buy food and healthcare, but also more pollution, which damages food production and health. Governments would ignore this fact until it was too late, described as ‘overshoot’.

The conclusions of the work, published in 1972 as Limits to Growth, was an unexpected bestseller that also sparked a backlash, which even today obscures what the scientists actually said. For example, many people say the findings projected a global collapse by 2000, but they did not. Neither did the authors suggest it was all doom and gloom. If growth of population and industrial output is restrained, you get stability rather than collapse.

The other criticism of Limits to Growth was that it had ignored, or underestimated, scientific breakthroughs and technological innovation, but this was not quite true. The fact the oil crisis of 1973 took people’s focus away from longer-term modelling towards an immediate resource crisis, which was soon resolved, didn’t help the credibility of the work either. Fellow scientists rejected the work because it wasn’t peer-reviewed, right-leaning politicians disliked it because it criticised growth and left-leaning politicians said it betrayed the aspirations of workers. Even the Catholic Church disliked it due to its argument for birth control.

But how do their forecasts from 1972 look today? Surprisingly, their model has held up well, especially with the limits of computer modelling 40 years ago. If they erred, it was with birth rates, which are indeed linked to income, but have fallen much faster than predicted. While resources are still problematic, population growth is much lower than predicted – yet population growth is at the heart of much of the work. Nobody has done any better work since. But with peak oil, climate change and the failure of traditional economic models, this may all be about to change.

So what will happen next? The key question is essentially whether or not science and technology can continue to deliver ingenuity at an exponential rate. If we can invent our way out of trouble, then the future could be utopian. If we cannot, we will indeed reach the limits of growth well before the end of this century - and after that things could turn nasty.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 7 January 2012, ‘Doomsday book’ by D. MacKenzie.
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Search words: Future, forecasts, prediction, Limits to Growth, Club of Rome.
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A Chinese century?

For 18 of the last 20 centuries, China was the most significant economic and cultural power on Earth. By the 1970s, Chinese was a restaurant that opened up in your town. Now China is growing again. China represents 20% of the global population, 46% of world coal consumption, 20% of global consumption by 2020 and 20% of global energy consumption by 2035.

There are 57 million Chinese households with annual disposable incomes of US $10,000 (projected to rise to 222 million by 2020). Forty years ago China’s economy was smaller than the UK. Today it’s 500% larger and by 2016 or 2017 (some say later) China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. At this point the Chinese middle class is likely to reshape the world in more ways than we can currently imagine, maybe.

China also suffers from a number of drawbacks. Its one-child policy introduced in 1980 has created an imbalance of young men in the Chinese population, all of who presumably aspire to jobs and marriage. But there’s also a shortage of young women in the population created by selective abortion. For every 123 male children four years or under, there are only 100 girls. Chinese society is aging fast too. In one sense the country is on a quest to get rich and build vital infrastructure before it runs out of young people. From 2012-2050, the number of over-60s will rise by 230 million (from 12% to 33% of the population). There are also environmental concerns, including a severe lack of fresh water, heavy pollution (16 of the world’s filthiest cities are Chinese) and soil erosion. Some of these issues are being solved by regulation, but vulnerabilities remain.

The big question is how China will secure the resources it so desperately needs to maintain growth and how China will look politically. It is widely assumed in the West that China will become more like the West, but evidence suggests this is fanciful. It’s possible that China will stay more or less as it is - and we will end up working for them. It's not totally impossible that the West will become more like China, swapping what are seen as essential freedoms for longer-term planning and stronger government control.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 11. March 2012, ‘Get ready to be a slave’ by N. Ferguson. See also Sunday Telegraph (UK) 11 March 2012, ‘The whole world in its hands’ by P. Sherwell.

America in decline?

America is in the midst of a crisis. The world’s number one superpower is coming under strain from a number of factors, especially demographics and the polarisation of wealth. The last US census suggests whites will be a minority by 2040. Already, 46.5% of Americans under 18 are non-white, up from 39% 12 years ago. The US is also becoming less equal in terms of wealth and opportunity. Over the past 30 years real incomes have risen 300% among the top 1% of American society, compared to a 40% rise in median US household incomes over the same period.

It’s possible that polarisation could continue without causing widespread anger and resentment but, if America’s economy collapses further, it could create serious civil unrest or, at the very least, disruption and non-cooperation. Furthermore, when China becomes the world’s largest economy (or the Chinese renminbi replaces the US dollar as the world’s reverse currency) it’s possible an American malaise will take hold. This could be transformed into a general disenchantment with American democracy, which could in turn fuel nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. Perhaps this has started already. Indeed, perhaps the whole Western-inspired capitalist, free-market system has already collapsed and is only being kept alive by governments that are effectively printing promissory notes.

A poll by Fox News in 2010 found 62% of Americans felt the US was in decline compared to 26% who thought the US was on the rise. It would be interesting to ask people over 45 the same question, given that 75% of Tea Party membership is people over 45.

Age is one internal divide. Colour remains another, but not necessarily in the way you’d imagine. 78% of social security recipients in the US, for example, are white. So what happens when an increasingly Hispanic, black and Asian workforce wake up to the fact their taxes are being used to support a white minority? What happens also when the world’s economy and then its politics become China-centric or when the US and China start bargaining for access to the world’s resources?

Tensions between the US and China could be one implication. But if the US declines, the rest of the liberal world could be threatened too, a point made by Robert Kagan in his book, The World America Made. Kagan compares the US Empire and Rome, which after its dramatic fall created the Dark Ages. This is headline-grabbing stuff, but the reality may be more prosaic.

First, the US remains strong demographically. Its workforce is one of the few set to grow over coming decades. If you look at the US share of the world economy, this has remained relatively steady at around 25% since the 1960s. China is growing, but not necessarily at the expense of the US. Others disagree. IMP figures suggest US output fell from 31% in 2000 to 23.1% in 2010 but, even if these figures are accurate, economic muscle doesn’t always translate into political clout (see Japan, for example). Moreover, when the US goes to war, it tends to do so with allies, whereas China and Russia are relatively friendless.

So what’s next? Nobody has the faintest idea, although it would not be unreasonable to suggest something dramatic. A Greek exit from the euro is one possibility. A multiple exit is another, as is a Chinese hard economic landing or the US falling off a fiscal cliff. Looks like we are in for an interesting 18 months.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 14-15 January 2012, ‘Caught between apathy and anger’ by E. Luce. Also, Financial Times, 17-18 March 012, ‘American nightmare’ by G. Rachman.
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Search words: US, America, China, geopolitics
Trend tags: Power shift eastwards
Book links: The world America made by Robert Kagan, The Age of Austerity: How scarcity will remake American politics by Thomas Byrne Edsall and Eclipse: Living in the shadow of China’s Economic dominance by Arvind Subramanian.

The jinxed generation

Just over one fifth of British 16-24-year-olds not in education are unemployed. Even for those lucky enough to find a job, it’s likely the job will fall short of their expectations. According to the Office of National Statistics, UK graduates working in low skilled employment has risen from 26.7% in 2011 to 35.9% in 2011. Across parts of Europe, it’s even worse and restlessness and resentment is potentially growing.

As a result, belief in the future is evaporating and being replaced by disillusionment and cynicism, at least for many younger people. At the other end of the age spectrum, energy and optimism are booming, alongside living standards. Historically, this optimism and pessimism was reversed.

Indeed, there appears to be a significant shift in prosperity: the living standards of many people in their 70s and 80s now exceed that of many people in their 20s. Public spending is also greying. Add to this the fact that there are now more people in the UK aged over 65 than under 16 and you can start to see why a living standards and expectations divide could open up along generational lines. This could prove to be one of the defining fault lines of early 21st century politics in some countries. Many UK pensioners, for example, benefit from a number of non-means tested and inflation-linked benefits, while younger people face increased university tuition fees, cuts in working tax credits and rising property prices, at least in some areas.

During the last century it was widely believed that each new generation would be better off than the last – that standards of living and health improved over time – but this seems overoptimistic. Clearly people in their 20s today are still far better off than people in their 20s were 50 or 100 years ago, but it’s relative or recent changes that matter to people. One could argue that retiring baby boomers found the 1970s difficult too, but those born between 1985 and 1994 face lower living standards than those born a decade or more earlier.

What’s next? Perhaps people aged 16 should be given the vote and hence a voice. Alternatively, perhaps people in their 60s, 70s and 80s should be taxed at a higher rate or have their benefits linked to income or assets. Failing that, those stuck in the middle in their 30s and 40s, need to come up with an idea, because developments in automation, robotics and data analytics could make future jobs harder, not easier to find.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 17 March 2012, ‘A cry from the heart: Britain is no country for young men’ by J. McDermott, also Financial Times, 17-18 March 2012, ‘Baby boomers entering golden years have never had it so good’ by C. Giles,
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Search words: Living standards, youth, unemployment, boomers, Gen Y
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Education isn’t working

One of the worst failings of British (and perhaps western) politics over the last few decades is short-termism and obsession with presentation and re-badging. There has rarely been a vision or any kind of grand plan and policies seem to be made up on the run or linked to tactical objectives. Even education, which is central to a healthy society and a strong economy, has been caught in the turbulence created by ever changing priorities and dubious short-term agendas. The result is a generation, many of whom have failed to master even the most basic skills, including literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking.

Even for graduates, there is a chronic mismatch between what people have been taught and the needs of industry, especially those industries that will provide jobs and growth in the coming decades. According to one employer, 70% of graduates cannot even look a potential employer in the eye and talk to them intelligently. They are neither interested nor interesting. As a result, many job vacancies are filled by foreigners.

For example, while the number of jobs in the UK given to British workers fell by 280,000 in the year to September 2011, the overseas workforce expanded by 147,000 over the same period. Why is this? Part of the explanation must surely be lack of hard and soft skills, but it may also be their attitude. Employers constantly complain potential staff seem to think the world owes them a living and they have an inflated sense of achievement and entitlement. This does not describe all young people or graduates in the UK by any means, but it’s a large enough proportion to be concerned.

One solution could be to scale back the university system because quite frankly many people who go to university shouldn’t. This should be accompanied by an expansion of the apprentice system, possibly modelled on the German system. For this to work, government and companies alike need to commit to a long-term plan and stick to it. The university-educated, London-centric media also need to get real in the sense of listening to and responding to what goes on outside South East England.

Daily Telegraph (UK) 26 November 2011, ‘The new jobless generation’ by E. Gosden and N. Tweedie.
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Search words: Education, schools,
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Ten trends shaping the future

There was a good feature in Time magazine recently on trends that are shaping the future. The best trend was singles - living alone is increasingly the norm. In the US, just 4 million Americans lived alone in 1950 (9% of all households). By 2011, 33 million Americans (28% of households) contained just one person (US census). Indeed, singles now tie with childless couples as the most common household type in the US, with both concentrated in cities.

Is this new single state making us lonelier? A study of 1985-2004, now disputed, said yes, almost 25% of Americans had nobody to talk to. But many commentators argue there is little or no evidence of increased loneliness. Possible reasons for the shift include individual free choice, personal control, self-realisation, restorative solitude, the growth of social networks and me-ism. In the UK, single person households are 34% of all households, in Sweden 47%, Italy 29%, Japan 31% and South Africa 24%. In India, interestingly, it’s a mere 3% and in Brazil just 10%.

What were the other trends?
•The Rise of the Nones (a very American trend, which is essentially the rise of no-aligned religion and religious belief)
•Niche Ageing (essentially ways of segmenting older populations by interest rather than age)
•Privacy in Public (how privacy is being re-defined in the digital era)
•Nature is Over (the rise of geo-engineering and the re-thinking of environmentalism)
•Food that Lasts Forever (hopefully self-explanatory)
•High Status Stress and
•Black Irony.

Ref: Time (UK) 12 March 2012, ‘Ten ideas that are changing your life’ (various contributors).
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Search words: Trends
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Foreseeable futures

Forum for the Future, a not-for-profit sustainability consulting firm, and Sony have collaborated to create four scenarios for the world in 2025. The four futures are: a world of hyper-innovation (futuristic but frenetic), centralised survival (hard truths, tough choices), shared ownership (sharing in a smart world) and prosperity redefined (new-age thinking, next-gen tech).

1. Hyper-innovation is essentially an extension of the world we’ve already got, with smart minds and smart machines propelling us on our current path of globalisation, individualism and consumerism (our words not theirs). 2. Centralised survival ignores many serious issues confronting humanity until a series of shocks forces change, with sustainable policies eventually coming to the fore. 3. Shared ownership is one where friendly collaboration rules. 4. Prosperity redefined is based on the idea that an extended period of austerity makes people question what they really want.

Interestingly, the four worlds more or less conform to the typical scenario matrix that is divided along the lines of comfort/discomfort and optimism/pessimism.

Ref: Wired UK (special promotion) undated, 2012.
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Search words: scenarios, the future
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