In a world that’s embracing new technology, inspiration is being found in bug behaviour. The hard-bodied dung beetle is now key to robotics research, in Africa too.
Under a scorching African sun in the Kalahari Desert, 70kms outside Vryburg, a town situated in the North West Province of South Africa, researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits in South Africa) and Lund University, Sweden, monitor the movements of a dung beetle in windy conditions.
The insect, with a rotund body and metallic luster, resembling a miniature cyborg, is expertly rolling away a ball of dung, oblivious to the gaze of science.
The researchers aim to explore more about what influences the dung beetle’s movements.
They find that it uses visual cues such as the sun, polarized light, color gradients, intensity gradients in the sky, and even the Milky Way, as external reference points.
The insect uses the sun as a direction tool but what happens after dusk? The researchers find that in windy conditions, the dung beetle switches from using the sun as a navigator to using the wind.
Astounded by this discovery early this year is Marcus Byrne, one of the researchers from Wits.
Having studied dung beetles for over 20 years, he believes that this new knowledge from a tiny being could influence the bigger world of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
“We have gone from massively complicated to as simple as possible, using insects as a model,” he says.
In Byrne’s office at Wits, dozens of dung beetle replicas sit on his bookshelf that’s also heaving with thick volumes and encyclopedias on entomology.
A large poster of a dung beetle, almost in flight, hangs on a wall. To tech geeks and film buffs used to the sci-fi genre, this would look more like a still from the Transformers movie series.
Byrne excitedly scavenges for an apparatus used to illustrate how the dung beetle’s brain works.
The insect has a navigation feature, such as switching from the sun to the wind, and an orientation feature that Byrne explains in detail.
Orientation means the dung beetle is able to maintain its body in a straight line to a specific direction, whilst navigation means that it is able to know where it is, relative to something else.
Being able to switch between the two is an amazing skill for insect life to have, according to Byrne.
Some dung beetles can operate with one of the systems while others can operate with both.
For Byrne, the dung beetle species the researchers worked on was only able to use its system of orientation.
“What makes this feature of the dung beetle key to researchers and robotics, is that unlike other insects such as the bee, the dung beetle does not need to be trained to do an experiment,” he says.
“She will just roll the ball if you put the dung ball down. And if she is in the mood, she will roll that ball,” he says.
When a dung beetle is in searching mode, it uses its sense of smell to find the dung.
After the dung is found, it rolls it up into a ball and then switches to a visual system to recognize the ball.
“It switches its brain from smell to vision. And we think that that’s because it has a very limited set of neurons. It probably has less than a million neurons in its brain.”
The dung beetle, despite the size of its brain, can process information and decide which sensor to use.
“They are scanning the horizon to look for a large dark object against the horizon and that’s probably a ball, and you could teach a robot to do that,” adds Byrne.
“What you have is a compass with a fallback system that if one cue is not available, another one can be incorporated and if all of the visual cues fail, it still has a mechanical cue,” he says.
In this way, Byrne suggests, it could aid in the development of robots and AI.
“This is the sort of thing that the air force, GPS and anyone who wants to orientate across the planet, [would] want their machines to be able to do,” he says.
“What if the power goes off and what if the battery goes flat or someone shoots down the satellite? Now, you have a natural full-proof system that does not require any external energy inputs, it just uses the signals in nature.
“This is what we can learn from insects, you can solve what appears to be a complex problem by actually having a very simple set of rules,” he says.
Learning from the beetle brain
The dung beetle has a miniscule brain, with less than a million neurons, when compared to the brain of a human being which has over 100 billion neurons.
But despite this, the beetle is still able to use its neurons to process two different sets of inputs at the same time, and can pick from a wide array of inputs to complete a task at any given time.
“It can choose between the polarized light input and the sun input using the same neuron, it just codes the information in a different way,” Byrne says.
When it reads polarized light, the spikes in the neurons are a different pattern from when it reads sunlight.
“This is also dead cool because you have limited computing power and you don’t have to build a new transistor or a new wire or a new gateway for this information.
“You can use the same communicating system. You just code the information differently.
“It is very difficult to convince even an intelligent computer what is the most important piece of information it needs to deal with at any given time,” he says.
After learning about Byrne and his work on dung beetles from an online article, another professor from Wits was interested to see how they could collaborate.
Benjamin Rosman is a principal researcher at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa’s capital Pretoria with a focus on machine learning, AI, robotics and automation.
He also spends his time lecturing at Wits teaching bright-eyed students about the world of robotics, something he is passionate about.
“Robotics and AI have a long history and relationship with understanding living organisms,” Rosman says.
He grew up interested in making computer games but later found AI and robotics much more intriguing.
Now, he believes that the world of robotics has a thing or two to learn from insects.
“On the one hand, you can look at insects to solve robotics’ problems and it’s a general thing we do in AI because there’s already a proof of concept. Living creatures can do intelligent things,” Rosman says.
Robots can be built from understanding the way the insect brain works, for example, the artificial neuron networks Byrne mentioned earlier.
But the roles too can be reversed where these robots can help humans understand insects.
“So you can study these natural phenomena to get a better idea of how to build robots or systems or solve problems, and the flip side of that is you can build robots that help you understand the natural phenomena,” Rosman says.
Insects saving lives?
With modern inventions such as self-driving cars at the cusp of commodification, the word ‘autonomous’ is on everyone’s minds.
Byrne believes that insects such as the dung beetle also have a say in this.
But, forget self-driving cars, Byrne believes learning from the dung beetle could also potentially save lives.
He explains how this could work in a life-threatening situation.
If a robot is programmed to navigate and orientate like the dung beetle, it could do so autonomously if sent into a building that is burning.
The robot would be able to maneuver around the building, find people and alert where the humans are trapped in the building even without being programmed.
“It’s a life-saving device that even if it gets burned in the building, it is not a big deal,” Byrne says.
On another continent, a researcher from Scotland created robots inspired by insects.
Barbara Webb, a professor of robotics at the University of Edinburgh, has been studying insect behavior to build robots for over 10 years.
“Recently, we focused on navigation behavior in insects; so how ants and bees are able to get back to their nests. They started by keeping track of how fast they have moved in each direction and so we have a few hypotheses on how they do that and what brain mechanism is behind that,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
By studying the insects’ brains, she and her team were able to implement and test out the theories they had and built a robot that used a similar mechanism.
One of the robots they built was made of wheels, a mobile phone and mirrors to keep track of their navigation and recognize a route to detect familiarity.
“Insects typically have 360-degree vision and so we try to copy that by having a mirror near the camera to have that kind of 360-degree view,” she says.
“The main reason we are interested in looking at them is because they have managed to do this kind of behavior such as navigation with very small brains, and if you compare that to self-driving cars, which has had very successful research now, but they depend on having very complicated, very detailed sensing, lots of information about the maps of the world that they are moving in and very high degrees of computing, and yet none of them are available to the insect but they still manage to get around very well,” she says.
Is it a bug, robot or cyborg?
The material environment has always taken inspiration from insects and animals.
Biomimicry, as it is called, is an innovative approach to the design and production of materials, structures and systems modeled on biological entities.
Some examples can be seen in modern-day inventions such as the bullet train, inspired by the kingfisher, or wind turbines modeled after humpback whales, and the list goes on.
But an entrepreneur and multi-disciplinary artist in the United States has taken biomimicry to a whole new level.
Ever seen a cyborg-looking-beetle with machine-made parts looking like something out of a sci-fi film?
Well, Mike Libby, founder of Insect Lab Studio in Maine, incorporates this form of aesthetics to his contemporary designs.
He customizes preserved insect specimens with mechanical components, to create art that illustrates science-fiction.
His journey began when he found a dead beetle, dissected it and incorporated into it with watch parts and gears making it look like something out of a Transformers film.
“There are a lot of different things in science fiction and there are a lot of things in real science that create context for this type of work to develop,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
He collects beetles from licensed dealers all over the world, including Africa.
One of the beetles he has collected is the African flower beetle that feeds from the pollen and nectar of flowers. Its biological name is Cetonidae/Eudicella Gralli Orientalis and is 3.5 inches wide.
Libby customized this beetle with his own idea of an exoskeleton, giving it brass and steel parts, gears, a crown, springs, screws, watch jewel, pulley and belt.
Today, he sells these pieces for $500 to over $8,500 to clients all over the world.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, I sold a small beetle to a gentleman in France whose wife’s birthday was coming up and I think that’s where 50% to 60% of the gifts end up, as special gifts,” he says.
He has also created art using crabs and lobsters.
If he can do this using dead bugs and broken technology, imagine what the next few years could be with moving AI, robotics and living insects?
Perhaps we are closer than we think to living in a world with one of the Transformers’ contraptions next door.
Africa’s dung idea
There are about 800 species of dung beetles in South Africa alone, and a wider variety of them on the rest of the continent.
With all this wealth of insects and diversity on our content, it is safe to say that Africa is at a higher advantage than most to develop technological solutions from the natural environment.
With AI and the fourth industrial revolution on the rise, Africa should have clear advantage to merge AI, robotics and insects.
Rosman believes the same.
“I think we have a lot of opportunity here. In the research space, we are always looking for what are the advantages of being in Africa. And I think one of the things we can think about is this kind of natural diversity,” he says.
“The diversity of animals we have here is another big strength which can come into the way we think about machines doing intelligent things.”
Therefore, for Africa to get ahead, ideally, we need to leapfrog into such technologies.
However, there are challenges.
“There’s the technical challenges of how do we build these systems that can work in those kind of ways. Then there are questions around how it interacts with our politics, particularly the unemployment situation,” Rosman says.
The big question, Rosman says is: “Should we be spending government money on building autonomous dung beetles?”
However, the plus side of such innovative tech is the potential it has to encourage young Africans to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
It is important to educate and inform the masses on such trends and how it could enhance our daily lives.
As tech advances, it is possible that we will live in an autonomous world where we don’t have to tell our tech what to do, it will already know what to do and when.
“That’s the world we want to live in, that our technology helps us without us even having to think about it… and I think that’s the kind of thing we could get more easily by studying how animals and insects interact in these kinds of ways,” Rosman says.
Dung may be the currency for the beetle, but maybe the beetle can be the currency for our technology.
With the natural environment at our finger tips, Africa may just have the potential the world has never seen before, thanks to a small, unassuming, rotund insect with a steely resolve.
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In the 1960s, dung beetles from South Africa were introduced in Australia to help improve the quality and fertility of cattle and reduce the population of flies that feed off cattle dung.
The African dung beetle was also introduced in North and South America for the same reason.
Dung beetles assist with nutrient recycling, aeration, soil penetration and pest control.
“They are massively important in any agricultural economy,” Byrne says, adding that the value of dung beetles is in the billions as they play a crucial role in natural and agricultural ecosystems.
Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?
As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.
Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.
Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.
What is climate change?
First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:
a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.
The causes of climate change can be any combination of:
- Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
- Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
- Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).
What changes have been detected?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.
The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.
A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.
Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.
This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.
Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.
The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.
One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.
As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.
Adapting to a changing climate
Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.
Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.
As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.
The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation
Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.
As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.
The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).
The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.
The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.
To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.
Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.
Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.
“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.
But South African businesses were affected too.
Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.
Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.
“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.
Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected.
Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.
“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.
Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).
Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.
Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.
The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.
Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.”
Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.
There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.
There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.
A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.
Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”
“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.
She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.
Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.
“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.
She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.
“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).
“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.
Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.
The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.
Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?
How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap
As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.
On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.
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“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”
So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.
If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.
The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.
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“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.
While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.
As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.
“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”
-Samantha Todd; Forbes
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