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Artificial intelligence (AI) systems’ rapid advances are continually crossing rows off the list of things humans do better than our computer compatriots.
AI has bested us at board games like chess and Go, and set astronomically high scores in classic computer games like Ms. Pacman. More complex games form part of AI’s next frontier.
While a team of AI bots developed by OpenAI, known as the OpenAI Five, ultimately lost to a team of professional players last year, they have since been running rampant against human opponents in Dota 2. Not to be outdone, Google’s DeepMind AI recently took on—and beat—several professional players at StarCraft II.
These victories beg the questions: what games are humans still better at than AI? And for how long?
The Making Of AlphaStar
DeepMind’s results provide a good starting point in a search for answers. The version of its AI for StarCraft II, dubbed AlphaStar, learned to play the games through supervised learning and reinforcement learning.
First, AI agents were trained by analyzing and copying human players, learning basic strategies. The initial agents then played each other in a sort of virtual death match where the strongest agents stayed on. New iterations of the agents were developed and entered the competition. Over time, the agents became better and better at the game, learning new strategies and tactics along the way.
One of the advantages of AI is that it can go through this kind of process at superspeed and quickly develop better agents. DeepMind researchers estimate that the AlphaStar agents went through the equivalent of roughly 200 years of game time in about 14 days.
Cheating or One Hand Behind the Back?
The AlphaStar AI agents faced off against human professional players in a series of games streamed on YouTube and Twitch. The AIs trounced their human opponents, winning ten games on the trot, before pro player Grzegorz “MaNa” Komincz managed to salvage some pride for humanity by winning the final game. Experts commenting on AlphaStar’s performance used words like “phenomenal” and “superhuman”—which was, to a degree, where things got a bit problematic.
AlphaStar proved particularly skilled at controlling and directing units in battle, known as micromanagement. One reason was that it viewed the whole game map at once—something a human player is not able to do—which made it seemingly able to control units in different areas at the same time. DeepMind researchers said the AIs only focused on a single part of the map at any given time, but interestingly, AlphaStar’s AI agent was limited to a more restricted camera view during the match “MaNA” won.
Potentially offsetting some of this advantage was the fact that AlphaStar was also restricted in certain ways. For example, it was prevented from performing more clicks per minute than a human player would be able to.
Where AIs Struggle
Games like StarCraft II and Dota 2 throw a lot of challenges at AIs. Complex game theory/ strategies, operating with imperfect/incomplete information, undertaking multi-variable and long-term planning, real-time decision-making, navigating a large action space, and making a multitude of possible decisions at every point in time are just the tip of the iceberg. The AIs’ performance in both games was impressive, but also highlighted some of the areas where they could be said to struggle.
In Dota 2 and StarCraft II, AI bots have seemed more vulnerable in longer games, or when confronted with surprising, unfamiliar strategies. They seem to struggle with complexity over time and improvisation/adapting to quick changes. This could be tied to how AIs learn. Even within the first few hours of performing a task, humans tend to gain a sense of familiarity and skill that takes an AI much longer. We are also better at transferring skill from one area to another. In other words, experience playing Dota 2 can help us become good at StarCraft II relatively quickly. This is not the case for AI—yet.
While the battle between AI and humans for absolute superiority is still on in Dota 2 and StarCraft II, it looks likely that AI will soon reign supreme. Similar things are happening to other types of games.
In 2017, a team from Carnegie Mellon University pitted its Libratus AI against four professionals. After 20 days of No Limit Texas Hold’em, Libratus was up by $1.7 million. Another likely candidate is the destroyer of family harmony at Christmas: Monopoly.
Poker involves bluffing, while Monopoly involves negotiation—skills you might not think AI would be particularly suited to handle. However, an AI experiment at Facebook showed that AI bots are more than capable of undertaking such tasks. The bots proved skilled negotiators, and developed negotiating strategies like pretending interest in one object while they were interested in another altogether—bluffing.
So, what games are we still better at than AI? There is no precise answer, but the list is getting shorter at a rapid pace.
The Aim Of the Game
While AI’s mastery of games might at first glance seem an odd area to focus research on, the belief is that the way AI learn to master a game is transferrable to other areas.
For example, the Libratus poker-playing AI employed strategies that could work in financial trading or political negotiations. The same applies to AlphaStar. As Oriol Vinyals, co-leader of the AlphaStar project, told The Verge:
“First and foremost, the mission at DeepMind is to build an artificial general intelligence. […] To do so, it’s important to benchmark how our agents perform on a wide variety of tasks.”
A 2017 survey of more than 350 AI researchers predicts AI could be a better driver than humans within ten years. By the middle of the century, AI will be able to write a best-selling novel, and a few years later, it will be better than humans at surgery. By the year 2060, AI may do everything better than us.
Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, it’s worth noting that AI has an often overlooked ability to help us see things differently. When DeepMind’s AlphaGo beat human Go champion Lee Sedol, the Go community learned from it, too. Lee himself went on a win streak after the match with AlphaGo. The same is now happening within the Dota 2 and StarCraft II communities that are studying the human vs. AI games intensely.
More than anything, AI’s recent gaming triumphs illustrate how quickly artificial intelligence is developing. In 1997, Dr. Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a GO enthusiast, told the New York Times that:
”It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go—maybe even longer.”
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The robot revolution may not be here quite yet, but our mechanical cousins have made some serious strides. And now some of the leading experts in the field have provided a rundown of what they see as the 10 most exciting recent developments.
Compiled by the editors of the journal Science Robotics, the list includes some of the most impressive original research and innovative commercial products to make a splash in 2018, as well as a couple from 2017 that really changed the game.
1. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour
It seems like barely a few months go by without Boston Dynamics rewriting the book on what a robot can and can’t do. Last year they really outdid themselves when they got their Atlas humanoid robot to do parkour, leaping over logs and jumping between wooden crates.
Atlas’s creators have admitted that the videos we see are cherry-picked from multiple attempts, many of which don’t go so well. But they say they’re meant to be inspirational and aspirational rather than an accurate picture of where robotics is today. And combined with the company’s dog-like Spot robot, they are certainly pushing boundaries.
2. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci SP platform
Robotic surgery isn’t new, but the technology is improving rapidly. Market leader Intuitive’s da Vinci surgical robot was first cleared by the FDA in 2000, but since then it’s come a long way, with the company now producing three separate systems.
The latest addition is the da Vinci SP (single port) system, which is able to insert three instruments into the body through a single 2.5cm cannula (tube) bringing a whole new meaning to minimally invasive surgery. The system was granted FDA clearance for urological procedures last year, and the company has now started shipping the new system to customers.
3. Soft robot that navigates through growth
Roboticists have long borrowed principles from the animal kingdom, but a new robot design that mimics the way plant tendrils and fungi mycelium move by growing at the tip has really broken the mold on robot navigation.
The editors point out that this is the perfect example of bio-inspired design; the researchers didn’t simply copy nature, they took a general principle and expanded on it. The tube-like robot unfolds from the front as pneumatic pressure is applied, but unlike a plant, it can grow at the speed of an animal walking and can navigate using visual feedback from a camera.
4. 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers for soft robotics
Soft robotics is one of the fastest-growing sub-disciplines in the field, but powering these devices without rigid motors or pumps is an ongoing challenge. A variety of shape-shifting materials have been proposed as potential artificial muscles, including liquid crystal elastomeric actuators.
Harvard engineers have now demonstrated that these materials can be 3D printed using a special ink that allows the designer to easily program in all kinds of unusual shape-shifting abilities. What’s more, their technique produces actuators capable of lifting significantly more weight than previous approaches.
5. Muscle-mimetic, self-healing, and hydraulically amplified actuators
In another effort to find a way to power soft robots, last year researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a series of super low-cost artificial muscles that can lift 200 times their own weight and even heal themselves.
The devices rely on pouches filled with a liquid that makes them contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied. The most promising for robotics applications is the so-called Peano-HASEL, which features multiple rectangular pouches connected in series that contract linearly, just like real muscle.
6. Self-assembled nanoscale robot from DNA
While you may think of robots as hulking metallic machines, a substantial number of scientists are working on making nanoscale robots out of DNA. And last year German researchers built the first remote-controlled DNA robotic arm.
They created a length of tightly-bound DNA molecules to act as the arm and attached it to a DNA base plate via a flexible joint. Because DNA carries a charge, they were able to get the arm to swivel around like the hand of a clock by applying a voltage and switch direction by reversing that voltage. The hope is that this arm could eventually be used to build materials piece by piece at the nanoscale.
7. DelFly nimble bioinspired robotic flapper
Robotics doesn’t only borrow from biology—sometimes it gives back to it, too. And a new flapping-winged robot designed by Dutch engineers that mimics the humble fruit fly has done just that, by revealing how the animals that inspired it carry out predator-dodging maneuvers.
The lab has been building flapping robots for years, but this time they ditched the airplane-like tail used to control previous incarnations. Instead, they used insect-inspired adjustments to the motions of its twin pairs of flapping wings to hover, pitch, and roll with the agility of a fruit fly. That has provided a useful platform for investigating insect flight dynamics, as well as more practical applications.
8. Soft exosuit wearable robot
Exoskeletons could prevent workplace injuries, help people walk again, and even boost soldiers’ endurance. Strapping on bulky equipment isn’t ideal, though, so researchers at Harvard are working on a soft exoskeleton that combines specially-designed textiles, sensors, and lightweight actuators.
And last year the team made an important breakthrough by combining their novel exoskeleton with a machine-learning algorithm that automatically tunes the device to the user’s particular walking style. Using physiological data, it is able to adjust when and where the device needs to deliver a boost to the user’s natural movements to improve walking efficiency.
9. Universal Robots (UR) e-Series Cobots
Robots in factories are nothing new. The enormous mechanical arms you see in car factories normally have to be kept in cages to prevent them from accidentally crushing people. In recent years there’s been growing interest in “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues and even learn from them.
Earlier this year saw the demise of ReThink robotics, the pioneer of the approach. But the simple single arm devices made by Danish firm Universal Robotics are becoming ubiquitous in workshops and warehouses around the world, accounting for about half of global co-bot sales. Last year they released their latest e-Series, with enhanced safety features and force/torque sensing.
10. Sony’s aibo
After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Sony’s robotic dog aibo is back, and it’s had some serious upgrades. As well as a revamp to its appearance, the new robotic pet takes advantage of advances in AI, with improved environmental and command awareness and the ability to develop a unique character based on interactions with its owner.
The editors note that this new context awareness mark the device out as a significant evolution in social robots, which many hope could aid in childhood learning or provide companionship for the elderly.
Image Credit: DelFly Nimble / CC BY – SA 4.0 Continue reading →
You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.
Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.
The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.
A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.
Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.
Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.
The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).
The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.
We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.
You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.
Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.
The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.
Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.
Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.
Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.
As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.
We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.
As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.
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Robotics research has been making great strides in recent years, but there are still many hurdles to the machines becoming a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The journal Science Robotics has now identified 10 grand challenges the field will have to grapple with to make that a reality.
Editors conducted an online survey on unsolved challenges in robotics and assembled an expert panel of roboticists to shortlist the 30 most important topics, which were then grouped into 10 grand challenges that could have major impact in the next 5 to 10 years. Here’s what they came up with.
1. New Materials and Fabrication Schemes
Roboticists are beginning to move beyond motors, gears, and sensors by experimenting with things like artificial muscles, soft robotics, and new fabrication methods that combine multiple functions in one material. But most of these advances have been “one-off” demonstrations, which are not easy to combine.
Multi-functional materials merging things like sensing, movement, energy harvesting, or energy storage could allow more efficient robot designs. But combining these various properties in a single machine will require new approaches that blend micro-scale and large-scale fabrication techniques. Another promising direction is materials that can change over time to adapt or heal, but this requires much more research.
2. Bioinspired and Bio-Hybrid Robots
Nature has already solved many of the problems roboticists are trying to tackle, so many are turning to biology for inspiration or even incorporating living systems into their robots. But there are still major bottlenecks in reproducing the mechanical performance of muscle and the ability of biological systems to power themselves.
There has been great progress in artificial muscles, but their robustness, efficiency, and energy and power density need to be improved. Embedding living cells into robots can overcome challenges of powering small robots, as well as exploit biological features like self-healing and embedded sensing, though how to integrate these components is still a major challenge. And while a growing “robo-zoo” is helping tease out nature’s secrets, more work needs to be done on how animals transition between capabilities like flying and swimming to build multimodal platforms.
3. Power and Energy
Energy storage is a major bottleneck for mobile robotics. Rising demand from drones, electric vehicles, and renewable energy is driving progress in battery technology, but the fundamental challenges have remained largely unchanged for years.
That means that in parallel to battery development, there need to be efforts to minimize robots’ power utilization and give them access to new sources of energy. Enabling them to harvest energy from their environment and transmitting power to them wirelessly are two promising approaches worthy of investigation.
4. Robot Swarms
Swarms of simple robots that assemble into different configurations to tackle various tasks can be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to large, task-specific robots. Smaller, cheaper, more powerful hardware that lets simple robots sense their environment and communicate is combining with AI that can model the kind of behavior seen in nature’s flocks.
But there needs to be more work on the most efficient forms of control at different scales—small swarms can be controlled centrally, but larger ones need to be more decentralized. They also need to be made robust and adaptable to the changing conditions of the real world and resilient to deliberate or accidental damage. There also needs to be more work on swarms of non-homogeneous robots with complementary capabilities.
5. Navigation and Exploration
A key use case for robots is exploring places where humans cannot go, such as the deep sea, space, or disaster zones. That means they need to become adept at exploring and navigating unmapped, often highly disordered and hostile environments.
The major challenges include creating systems that can adapt, learn, and recover from navigation failures and are able to make and recognize new discoveries. This will require high levels of autonomy that allow the robots to monitor and reconfigure themselves while being able to build a picture of the world from multiple data sources of varying reliability and accuracy.
6. AI for Robotics
Deep learning has revolutionized machines’ ability to recognize patterns, but that needs to be combined with model-based reasoning to create adaptable robots that can learn on the fly.
Key to this will be creating AI that’s aware of its own limitations and can learn how to learn new things. It will also be important to create systems that are able to learn quickly from limited data rather than the millions of examples used in deep learning. Further advances in our understanding of human intelligence will be essential to solving these problems.
7. Brain-Computer Interfaces
BCIs will enable seamless control of advanced robotic prosthetics but could also prove a faster, more natural way to communicate instructions to robots or simply help them understand human mental states.
Most current approaches to measuring brain activity are expensive and cumbersome, though, so work on compact, low-power, and wireless devices will be important. They also tend to involve extended training, calibration, and adaptation due to the imprecise nature of reading brain activity. And it remains to be seen if they will outperform simpler techniques like eye tracking or reading muscle signals.
8. Social Interaction
If robots are to enter human environments, they will need to learn to deal with humans. But this will be difficult, as we have very few concrete models of human behavior and we are prone to underestimate the complexity of what comes naturally to us.
Social robots will need to be able to perceive minute social cues like facial expression or intonation, understand the cultural and social context they are operating in, and model the mental states of people they interact with to tailor their dealings with them, both in the short term and as they develop long-standing relationships with them.
9. Medical Robotics
Medicine is one of the areas where robots could have significant impact in the near future. Devices that augment a surgeon’s capabilities are already in regular use, but the challenge will be to increase the autonomy of these systems in such a high-stakes environment.
Autonomous robot assistants will need to be able to recognize human anatomy in a variety of contexts and be able to use situational awareness and spoken commands to understand what’s required of them. In surgery, autonomous robots could perform the routine steps of a procedure, giving way to the surgeon for more complicated patient-specific bits.
Micro-robots that operate inside the human body also hold promise, but there are still many roadblocks to their adoption, including effective delivery systems, tracking and control methods, and crucially, finding therapies where they improve on current approaches.
10. Robot Ethics and Security
As the preceding challenges are overcome and robots are increasingly integrated into our lives, this progress will create new ethical conundrums. Most importantly, we may become over-reliant on robots.
That could lead to humans losing certain skills and capabilities, making us unable to take the reins in the case of failures. We may end up delegating tasks that should, for ethical reasons, have some human supervision, and allow people to pass the buck to autonomous systems in the case of failure. It could also reduce self-determination, as human behaviors change to accommodate the routines and restrictions required for robots and AI to work effectively.
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They say size isn’t everything, but when it comes to delta robots it seems like it’s pretty important.
The speed and precision of these machines sees them employed in delicate pick-and-place tasks in all kinds of factories, as well as to control 3D printer heads. But Harvard researchers have found that scaling them down to millimeter scale makes them even faster and more precise, opening up applications in everything from microsurgery to manipulating tiny objects like circuit board components or even living cells.
Unlike the industrial robots you’re probably more familiar with, delta robots consist of three individually controlled arms supporting a platform. Different combinations of movements can move the platform in three directions, and a variety of tools can be attached to this platform.
The benefit of this design is that unlike a typical robotic arm, all the motors are housed at the base rather than at the joints, which reduces their mechanical complexity, but also—importantly—the weight of the arms. That means they can move and accelerate faster and with greater precision.
It’s been known for a while that the physics of these robots means the smaller you can make them, the more pronounced these advantages become, but scientists had struggled to build them at scales below tens of centimeters.
In a recent paper in the journal Science Robotics, the researchers describe how they used an origami-inspired micro-fabrication approach that relies on folding flat sheets of composite materials to create a robot measuring just 15 millimeters by 15 millimeters by 20 millimeters.
The robot dubbed “milliDelta” features joints that rely on a flexible polymer core to bend—a simplified version of the more complicated joints found in large-scale delta robots. The machine was powered by three piezoelectric actuators, which flex when a voltage is applied, and could perform movements at frequencies 15 to 20 times higher than current delta robots, with precisions down to roughly 5 micrometers.
One potential use for the device is to cancel out surgeons’ hand tremors as they carry out delicate microsurgery procedures, such as operations on the eye’s retina. The researchers actually investigated this application in their paper. They got volunteers to hold a toothpick and measured the movement of the tip to map natural hand tremors. They fed this data to the milliDelta, which was able to match the movements and therefore cancel them out.
In an email to Singularity Hub, the researchers said that adding the robot to the end of a surgical tool could make it possible to stabilize needles or scalpels, though this would require some design optimization. For a start, the base would have to be redesigned to fit on a surgical tool, and sensors would have to be added to the robot to allow it to measure tremors in real time.
Another promising application for the device would be placing components on circuit boards at very high speeds, which could prove valuable in electronics manufacturing. The researchers even think the device’s precision means it could be used for manipulating living cells in research and clinical laboratories.
The researchers even said it would be feasible to integrate the devices onto microrobots to give them similarly impressive manipulation capabilities, though that would require considerable work to overcome control and sensing challenges.
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