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Japan’s king of cute wants to develop a lovable A.I. you can’t live without

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***Original post published on Digital Trends***

Whether it’s robots or smartphones, AI or premium audio products, Japan has always been at the forefront of any conversation about technology. We recently spent several weeks in Tokyo discovering not only what some of the biggest names in new tech are creating, but also taking advantage of the exciting location to test out the best smartphone cameras, and discover the charm of its popular tech-tourism destinations. Make sure to check out other entries in our series “Modern Japan.”

In fall 2011, Line found itself in exactly the right place at the right time. The Apple iPhone 4S launched for the first time on all the major carriers in Japan, and exciting Android smartphones were arriving everyday to challenge it. Smartphones were becoming hugely popular, and although Line was a fledgling company — having released a dozen other apps with limited success — the smartphone-adopting population wanted a messaging app. Line was it, and in just three months, it caught on in a very big way.

Japan — just like the rest of the world — is on the cusp of another technical revolution, this time involving artificial intelligence.  Over the past seven months, Line has developed its own AI called Clova, and it may be poised to have the same impact on AI adoption in Japan that it did on messaging six years ago. While other companies focus on using AI in our homes as a voice-activated controller or assistant, Line’s vision is to create AI that also fits into our lives as an everyday companion.

We visited Line’s new offices in Tokyo to learn more about its AI ambitions, and understand the impact it could have on how we view and interact with artificially intelligent systems.

What’s Line? 

Line as a messaging app isn’t well known outside of its four biggest markets, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan. But where Line is used, it’s used a lot. Its name has organically become a verb. In the same way we Google something on the web, to “Line a friend” is a common phrase saying you’ll send them a message.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you don’t know the messaging app, you may know Line Friends, the company’s cute characters. Brown the bear, Sally the duck, and Cony the rabbit are the best known, but there are many more. Each has its own distinctive personality and interweaving storyline, and this is important as it will become relevant later on. If you live in New York City, the Line Friends store is the place to be introduced to them all. It opened recently, and attracted 300,000 visitors in its first week. Line is also famous for pioneering in-app sharable stickers, which have since been adopted by Facebook Messenger, Google Allo, WeChat, and others.

Line is widely referenced in Japanese popular culture. It was the app used by the two main characters in “Your Name,” the anime movie that received international acclaim this year. It’s a common sight in anime and manga generally, along with appearing in mainstream television shows and even song lyrics.

Line and artificial intelligence

While its ubiquity in Japan and other Asian countries is clear, getting a large number of people to use it elsewhere is a challenge. But breaking into major new countries isn’t Line’s current focus, according to CEO Takeshi Idezawa. Instead, it’s hoping to once again get the timing right for the next major technology breakthrough.

“We think the next big movement will be AI.”

“Rather than concentrating on geographical expansion at the moment, we are thinking about artificial intelligence,” Idezawa told Digital Trends. “We’ve always been mindful about what’s coming next, and we think the next big movement will be AI.”

This thinking led to the creation of Clova, Line’s own artificially intelligent assistant, and the Wave speaker on which Clova operates. Beginning just seven months ago, Clova has been built from the ground up, including the software, hardware, and command structure, creating the world’s first Japanese speaking AI. Line has big plans for Clova, and they aren’t restricted to the AI simply living on a basic speaker, turning the lights on or off, or checking the weather forecast.

Creating AI from the ground up

Most AI systems in use today speak English, or started out that way. Clova started life speaking Japanese, which presented some very unique challenges. Line’s Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Jun Masuda told us about them.

”If we could have bought an existing AI base, that would have been nice,” he laughed. “But none were available, so we built everything.”

Describing it as a, “difficult mission,” he explained the main components of AI — voice recognition, language comprehension, and voice synthesis  — are fundamentally different when the language isn’t English.

Line AI duck wave

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

“In English the verb comes first to explain what the command is, but in Japanese, the verb comes at the end,” he said. “So the command processing is completely different.”

This means an English assistant knows instantly what skill it will need. Say “Play me some music,” for example, and the AI knows immediately it’ll need to use the audio player, and listens out for the desired artist or track. In Japanese, the structure is reversed, meaning the artist and song would come before the command to play. Therefore a Japanese AI can only narrow down the options until the end of the sentence, as the question could be a request for information about an artist, rather than to play a song.

In Japanese, the structure is reversed, meaning the artist and song would come before the command to play.

How does this affect the way Clova listens for commands? The wake-up word for Clova is simply its name, and once it’s listening, Clova will make assumptions about the forthcoming command based on what you say. It will also learn by previous commands. For example, if you repeatedly ask to hear songs by a particular artist, Clova will prioritize that command for the future to improve speed and quality. But it gets harder.

“There are many different ways to express yourself in Japanese,” Masuda continued. “We have regular characters, along with those for expressing English words in Japanese, and also kanji, which are adapted from Chinese characters. All have to be processed by the AI for synthesis and understanding.”

Kanji poses a particular problem, as each character can have multiple meanings, and even people get confused over how they can be read. To build a functioning AI in less than a year, with challenges like these, seems like a monumental achievement.

A partner, not an employee

An AI assistant that can verbally interact with you is only the start. How do you get people to actually talk to it? After all, most people are used to touch interfaces, and are nervous of talking to devices. Masuda believes voice control will soon become the norm.

“It’s the most natural way to give a command,” he said. “Over the next 10 years,l we will enter a much more convenient era, when the relationship between people and computers will become much more natural. The hardware we are working towards is something that blends into people’s daily lives. There are two directions AI is moving in. One is like a remote control, and the other is more like a partner, one that converses with you.”

Line AI Takeshi Idezawa

Takeshi Idezawa, CEO at Line Corporation

Line wants people to use Clova in all situations. It’s designed to have continuous, natural conversations, so there’s no need to say “Clova” before every interaction; but this also means Clova needs character and charm. If there’s one thing we already know about Line, due to Brown and the gang, it’s that it fully understands how to create lovable and relatable characters that people adore. When Clova was being created, the team wrote an entire profile, with everything from where it was born, its strongest skills, music it likes, and an educational background, to personality traits and how it interacts with friends. Line already knows who Clova is.

“We want to use characters to build people’s affection towards the device.”

For Line, if a situation arises where there are two choices, the one people are most likely to fall in love with is chosen. When describing adorable, interesting products, Masuda referenced Sony’s Aibo robotic dog as an example. The normal-looking Wave speaker is the beginning, and the next Clova products will look like Line’s famous Brown and Sally characters, gradually making Clova more relatable.

However, it’s Line’s partnership with Gatebox where things take a sci-fi turn. Gatebox has developed a holographic-style AI character to make living with a digital creation a reality. By bringing these two systems together, Line hopes to achieve wider acceptance for digital, artificially intelligent creations.

“Others in the industry are creating a general, more scalable assistant, and so it’s kept plain,” he said. “But we want to use characters to build people’s affection towards the device. It’ll take longer, but it ties in with our company mission statement of, ‘closing the distance.’ It’s not enough just to connect people.”

Line has built Clova’s architecture in a way that allows other character types to sit on the top, and both software and hardware development kits are coming. A new generation of Gatebox digital companions, or even robotic companions like Aibo, are a tantalizingly real possibility. Masuda believes the creepiness factor of something like Gatebox will take several years to pass, but he considers us living with AI in this way inevitable, particularly in Japan where characters, from beloved local mascots to virtual popstar Hatsune Miku, are generally accepted.

“It’s not just the technology that’s important,” Masuda said. “The key is how that new trend can be introduced into people’s lives, and what kind of user experience is needed to do that.”

Timing is everything

CEO Idezawa knows Line is up against some serious competition in AI, not least because in October, Google announced Google Home for Japan. Line was aware of Google’s intention to launch a Japanese version of Assistant, and worked hard to release Clova before it. Idezawa believes in the importance of great timing, and there’s no doubt Line got it exactly right in 2011. Can this be repeated with Clova? The direction it’s taking is one few others are talking about, potentially giving it a crucial head start in what’s becoming the biggest, and most exciting tech trends we’ve seen in years.

Japan is Line’s priority for Clova, followed by the other countries where it’s well-known; however Clova is being built with English language support in mind for the future. There’s no timeline for when this will happen though.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

Digital Trends is a leading consumer technology publisher helping people navigate an increasingly digital world. With easy-to-understand product reviews, entertaining news and videos, Digital Trends serves more than 30 million unique visitors each month. Digital Trends reaches 90 million tech influencers through their own media network, and its syndicate partners include Yahoo!, FOX News and more than 200 broadcast news stations. Digital Trends is headquartered in Portland, OR with offices in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago.

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Outfit the athlete in your life with one of the best gifts for runners

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***Original post published on Digital Trends***

Tis the season for hanging mistletoe, listening to holiday carols, and shopping ’til you drop. If you still have a runner on your list to find a gift for, you may be scrambling to try to track something down they’ll actually like. If you don’t run yourself, this daunting task is even harder — how are you supposed to know exactly what a runner wants for the holidays? You’re still trying to get your head around the fact people find it fun to jog in circles until they collapse.

Fear not, we’re here to help. We’ve rounded up the latest gadgets, coolest gear, and sleekest apparel in the running world to give you a hand with your shopping woes. Below, you’ll find the products we thought were the best gifts for runners this season. Whether they’re into trail running, road races, marathons, triathlons, or just jogging around the block, we found something for everyone.

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This amazing little hydration gadget has the ability to revolutionize anyone’s running game. The extremely lightweight belt features two ergonomically shaped plastic bottles which sit smoothly against the fabric and fit perfectly into the curve of their hand when they go to have a drink. With Helium Hex airflow, the water is easy to drink and its clip-lock security bottle holster keeps the dishwasher-safe bottles free from bouncing around during a run. Featuring a unisex design, its fits runners of any size.

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Amazon

best gifts for runners night trek shoe lights lifestyle

If the person you’re shopping for is someone who likes to run at night, these LED shoe lights will help keep them visible while also allowing them to avoid rocks, ruts, and sidewalk cracks. The water-resistant contraptions blast 150 lumens up to 30 or more feet ahead of the runner, offering light to illuminate whatever surface they’re jogging on. Rear-facing red tail lights also let drivers know where they’re at and the whole unit offers 270 degrees of visibility. The devices clip on securely, delivering three to five hours of light in one stretch of battery life.

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This lightweight trail running jacket is constructed with ShakeDry, a type of Gore-Tex technology that doesn’t have face fabric, allowing it to weigh less than similar Gore-Tex shells. The breathable, packable jacket clocks in at just 4.2 ounces and can be compressed into a tiny ball. Lastly, the waterproof hood rolls back and snaps together so it doesn’t flap around when not in use.

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Moosejaw

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They will never experience softer, more securely fitting training socks than Balega’s Silver Ion line. Unlike many runner’s socks which constantly slide down and bunch up around the heel, these offer compressive arch support bands that keep them fitting snugly — there’s even a high heel tab that hugs the inside of shoes and an extra deep heel pocket to prevent sliding. The design also encourages a more natural foot movement and improved circulation. This line of Balega socks uses technology that encapsulates the sock fibers in silver ions to create enhanced antibacterial properties which, paired with the fabric’s Drynamix moisture management, keeps the runner’s feet dry and odor-free.

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best gifts for runners yaxtrax run traction device lifestyle

There are fair-weather runners and then there are die-hards who get outside to train in the rain, sleet, snow, and hail. If you’re shopping for the latter runner, YaxTrax’s device is a game changer for them. The anatomically designed product fits snugly on their shoe and is built with strong rubber, 1.4-millimeter steel coils, and carbide steel spikes, allowing them to winterize their running shoes and train more safely on snow and ice. It offers traction for temperatures as low as ‑41 degrees Fahrenheit and, as a bonus, has a reflective heel tab for night training.

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best gifts for runners katadyn befree collapsible flask lifestyle

This lightweight, award-winning water flask has a built-in filter, allowing runners to “be free” of the hunt for hydration, filling up their bottles virtually anywhere and letting the flask’s EZ-Clean Membrane clean it up for them. It features a gentle-squeeze top and a removable filter that easily pops out for a quick rinse. The collapsible design even allows it to fit into small backpacks and some pockets.

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Amazon

best gifts for runners scarpa spin lifestyle2 1

The Spin is a sleek trail running shoe that offers high-level performance without the cumbersome bells and whistles. The shoe performs fabulously on technical terrain, allowing runners to tackle hills faster and enjoy precise foot control. It features a Vibram outsole with Megagrip technology, a high-density rock plate, and a mesh upper with welded PU overlay. All told, it’s a great running shoe that offers superior stability in a simple, minimalist package.

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Amazon

best gifts for runners aftershokx trekx titanium lifestyle

When they’re out jogging around, they need music to get in the zone and this gadget from AfterShokz is essentially the Cadillac of running headphones. The wireless, open ear design showcases bone conduction technology, a method which delivers music through someone’s cheekbones, allowing their ears to stay open to their surroundings. This maintains their situational awareness, keeping them safer while also allowing them the ability to listen to their favorite tunes. The Bluetooth 4.1 offers perfect syncing to a smartphone, the sound quality is stellar, and the titanium wraparound headband keeps the device securely in place.

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Amazon

best gifts for runners garmin forerunner 935

Garmin’s Forerunner 935 is one of the best sport watches available for runners, particularly those who regularly participate in races, marathons, and triathlons. The device tracks heart rate, sleep, calories burned, personal records, steps, and other fitness metrics while they run. The lightweight watch also delivers smart notifications, allow for automatic workout uploads and syncs with Strava Live Segments to let them compete with their friends. With interchangeable bands, they can swap out a variety of options for a different style, making it a versatile, top-of-the-line running accessory.

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Amazon

best gifts for runners spy hunt sunglasses lifestyle

Happy runners are fast, effective runners. This cool pair of shades from SPY boasts Happy Lens technology that filters out bad short-wave blue light, allowing more long-wave blue light to penetrate the lens. The idea is that with more of this type of ray — which has been connected to improvements in mood — it will theoretically boost their happiness and make for a more enjoyable run or outdoor activity. The lens technology also offers stellar visual clarity, enhancing colors and contrast to make training safer and more effective. These “trail to tavern” sunglasses even have a stylish, casual frame with sturdy Grilamid material which allows them to look as good as they function.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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Verizon will help you watch the NFL … even if you’re not a Verizon customer

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***Original post published on Digital Trends***

Verizon and the NFL have been bedfellows dating back to 2010, and until now, only customers of Big Red — the largest mobile service provider in the country — were able to stream pro football live from their mobile devices (categorized as devices with screens smaller than 7 inches).

Big change is on the horizon. On Monday, December 11, Verizon has announced the completion of a previously rumored deal that gives the company exclusive rights to stream in-market games live to any device, regardless of size (!) or mobile carrier (!!). The most obvious beneficiary of the deal — reportedly worth $2 billion over five years — is Yahoo, which Verizon purchased last year for nearly $5 billion (though the sum was reduced earlier this year following a series of hacks at Yahoo). In addition to the NFL mobile app and the go90 app, a Verizon property, fans will be able to stream games live via Yahoo.com or the Yahoo Sports app, even if they’re not Verizon subscribers.

The deal will take effect in January 2018, and includes the following contests, regardless of network: In-market Sunday games, nationally televised games (Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, preseason and regular season), playoff games, and even the Super Bowl, which is scheduled for February 4 this season. To view out-of-market games that aren’t nationally televised, you’ll need to go through a different channel.

Interestingly, Verizon has decided to sacrifice its exclusive rights to streaming NFL content in favor of a more holistic approach, perhaps designed to drive traffic to Verizon’s Oath subsidiaries (including Yahoo and AOL; Yahoo’s traffic has declined considerably over the past few years) while simultaneously building good faith among non-Verizon football fans. Given the NFL’s ratings crisis — the media-averse league (which still doesn’t allow highlights on YouTube) seems to be on the decline, compared to millennial-friendly leagues like the NBA — this could also signal intentions to reach a younger, more smartphone-dependent market.

The Yahoo Sports app is available on both iOS and Android devices, as are the go90 app (iOS here, Android here) and the official NFL mobile app (iOS here, Android here). You can also watch via the Yahoo or NFL apps on various streaming devices, like any Roku or the Amazon Fire TV. In addition to live game streams, the deal grants fans access to NFL highlights, weekly coverage, and “a robust set of jointly developed original content.”

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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The best ad blockers for Chrome

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***Original post published on Digital Trends***

If you’ve decided once and for all that you can’t stand another video pre-roll commercial or flashing and blinking advert on the side of the article you’re reading, it may be time to install an ad blocker. But which one? There are plenty of apps and extensions that block pop ups, so we dug through them all to pick out the best ad blockers for Chrome.

It’s important to note when you install an ad blocker though, that many of the world’s free websites, Digital Trends included, rely on advertising revenue to operate. If you want your favorite sites to continue working as you see them now, make sure to whitelist the ones you love.

AdBlock

best ad blockers for chrome adblock01

As one of the most widely used ad blockers in the world, we would be remiss if we didn’t at least give a passing mention to Adblock. With its very on-the-nose name and long-running availability, it’s often what people turn to when they consider blocking adverts online today.

The AdBlock extension for Chrome works automatically, blocking adverts on static web pages and online video sites like Youtube. It also lets you set up whitelists of sites and advert types to allow through the filter if you so choose. Through its filter list subscription system, you can customize your web browsing experience so that only ads you like are shown, or untick everything and have just about everything blocked.

You can even have it remove other web-page aspects you find distasteful, like social networking links, and protect you against some malware attacks.

Adblock does participate in the “Acceptable Ads” initiative, so there are adverts it allows through (if you choose) that meet certain requirements. AdBlock is also known to a be little resource heavy too, especially if you like to have a lot of tabs open at one time and there have been some claims of it not blocking Youtube adverts particularly well.

Arguably not the best ad blocker on our list, AdBlock remains a solid choice, but don’t be afraid to look elsewhere.

AdBlock Plus

best ad blockers for chrome adblockplus01

AdBlock Plus is the original granddaddy of blocking adverts online and it’s still just as popular today as it was when it first took the web by storm. Combining blocking technology that takes out banner adverts video pre-roll ads, social networking ads, and popups, it offers a comprehensive ad blocking service to all who install its Chrome extension.

With an easy-to-navigate interface and customizable filter list, you can decide exactly what adverts you want to see and which ones you never want to see again. Its whitelisting function lets you make sure your favorite sites still display ads so they can continue to operate and if you allow acceptable ads you can let a few through automatically to help sites that stick to the rules.

One problematic element of AdBlock Plus is that reportedly it accepts payments from some advertisers to automatically whitelist their adverts. You can still opt-out of them, but it is an opt-out, rather than an opt-in system.

UBlock Origin

best ad blockers for chrome ublockorigin

Entirely free and open source, UBlock Origin is another popular ad blocking extension for Google Chrome because it does a great job at blocking the ads without taxing your system in the process. With more than 10 million users as of 2017, it remains one of the most well-used ad blockers out there today.

Utilizing similar block lists to AdBlock Plus, UBlock offers comparable blocking capabilities but by leveraging surveying what style resources are required for individual web pages, it is able to be more efficient in its operation. It has also been noted for its specific ability to counter pesky pop-under adverts which have become more common as more browsers come with their own pop-up blockers.

Users can also leverage UBlock’s own filters for ads, badware, and privacy concerns, as well as their own custom created filters. Individual sites can be whitelisted by hitting the big power-button inside the tool itself, and there are detailed stat breakdowns to let you know how effective a tool it has been since installation.

AdGuard

best ad blockers for chrome adguard01

Another popular ad blocker for Chrome is AdGuard. Capable of effectively blocking almost all kinds of ads across static web pages, video streaming sites, and social networks, AdGuard even keeps an eye out for pop-up and pop-under ads too.

The lightweight Chrome extension has additional options for blocking tracking and the installation of nefarious software like dialers, adware and other malware. One of its biggest claims to fame is its ability to speed up your web browsing experience and reduce your bandwidth by cutting back on all the needless clutter that comes along with some ads and trackers.

Some users have reported annoying notifications that try to encourage you to purchase the premium version, but other than that, AdGuard has near universally positive reviews from its millions of users.

Ghostery

1286004 autosave v1 ghostery01

Although it operates a little differently to some of the other ad blockers on this list, Ghostery is still a very useful tool for customizing your web browsing experience to how you like it. Its primary function is blocking web trackers and analytics tools that harvest information about you, but it also has its own effective ad blocker.

What really draws people to Ghostery over some of the other available alternatives is its deeper options for users. If you want to block specific trackers or advert types, you can. To make that easy, even for those new to the idea, Ghostery breaks down every page you visit with detailed information of the types of trackers and adverts being employed by that particular site. You can then remove elements at will, or make wider, sweeping blocks.

The only real drawback of Ghostery is that you do need to spend some time to tell it how you want it to operate. While other ad blockers function well enough all-in, if you try to do that with Ghostery you may find many aspects of the web non-functional. Take a little time to get it right though and Ghostery may become your favorite tool for customizing your web browsing experience.

Other considerations

Pi-Hole

If you want to go well beyond just blocking adverts in Chrome, Pi-Hole offers an advanced solution that will block adverts on all devices browsing the web in your home. You’ll need a Raspberry Pi to do it and some measure of technical expertise, but it works by funnelling all your internet traffic through the Pi and filtering the content that reaches your devices.

Using the web-interface you can manage your browsing experience on any device, monitor traffic and ads blocked, as well as reduce the load on your network by blocking ads before they’re even downloaded. It’s an advanced solution but one to consider for those really fed up with the modern state of internet browsing.

ScriptSafe

No ad blocker is 100 percent effective. Sometimes those little videos buried somewhere in a tab you’ve forgotten about sneak through and sometimes a script runs in the background without you even knowing. One of the most effective ways to stop them in their tracks is to use ScriptSafe. Although it’s not quite as effective as the likes of NoScript on Firefox, ScriptSafe does an excellent job of blocking most Java, JavaScript, and other scripts that run automatically on websites you visit.

Do take note however, that it can be a little heavy-handed and block content you legitimately wanted to view. Fortunately, there are customization options and manual commands for running them as and when you like.

Malwarebytes

If you’re looking to block adverts because you are concerned about their potential to spread malware as well as annoyance, a standard advert blocker may not be enough. Tools like MalwareBytes with active real-time protection against redirects and malicious sites can go a long way to protecting you online and can augment already installed advertising blockers like the ones recommended above.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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