Ancestor Simulations: A Past, Revisited




As anyone familiar with science fiction knows, time travel is fraught with problems.  Time travelers must avoid creating temporal paradoxes. They also need to hide their identity as people from the future.  And then there is the ever-present concern of leaving something they brought with them behind, such as a phaser or sports almanac.  It is no wonder that when the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation wants to time travel, they just use the holodeck to create a simulation of the past.  

When Geordi and Data use the holodeck to simulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian England, something unusual happens.  As Geordi interacts with the ship’s computer, Professor Moriarty catches sight of him. Moriarty, unfamiliar with such technology, gazes with wonder as a metal archway materializes in his world.  He watches as Geordi steps inside and speaks with the computer. After Geordi and Data leave, having dismissed the archway, Moriarty summons it himself, seeking to learn how this strange device functions. Viewers during the original run of the episode would have had more exposure to computers than Moriarty, yet they were still a novelty to the average household in the United States, something seen on the bridge of Enterprise rather than in the living room.  Our relationship with computers and our level of connectivity increases dramatically during the following decades and can be seen in three phases.  First, a period of limited computer usage and connectivity in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a liminal period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, finally, a period when most households have computers and connectivity, starting around 2010.

These three phases are reflected in the usage of ancestor simulations in science fiction during each of the time periods.  The way characters interact with these simulations, their relationship with the simulation, and the distribution of power shift between each phase and illustrate our changing relationship with computers and connectivity. As a representative of the 1980s and early 1990s, we will look at two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Elementary, Dear Data” (1988), and “Ship in a Bottle” (1993). Next, The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, both released in 1998, represent the peak of the liminal period of the late 1990s, as well as the sequels The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Finally, the 2016 Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” represents our current period.

 

A (Very) Brief History of Computer Usage in the US: 1989 to 2015 

In 1989, just one year after “Elementary, Dear Data” aired, only 15 percent of US households had a computer.  Computer usage would rise dramatically during the 1990s. In 2000, almost one out of every two households had a computer.  Not only did the number of computers in homes change, but also how they were used had changed. In 2000, over 26 percent of homes had internet access, something all but unheard of in the 1980s (Day et al. 1).  Computers had also become more common in the workplace during this period. In 1989, 36.8 percent of people used a computer at work (Newburger 5), increasing to 56 percent in 2000 (Day et al. 11). Despite this dramatic increase, computers and internet access in 2000 had nowhere near the ubiquity that we experience today, where having both a computer and internet access is almost a given in the United States.  In 2015, 78 percent of homes had computers, 77 percent had internet access, and 75 percent had a smartphone or similar device (Ryan and Lewis 2-3).

These data show that the 1990s was a time of not only a dramatic increase in computer usage and connectivity, but also was a liminal period between a time when hands-on experience with computers was uncommon and a time of ubiquity.  In 2000, at the height of this liminal period, just over half of US households had computers, and just under half of US households did not. Approximately 26 percent of households had internet access, and approximately 74 percent of households did not.  This created a digital divide in the population, which manifests itself in media from this period.

            

Programmed History 

An ancestor simulation¹ (see the end of the article for endnotes) is a form of virtual reality where a user interfaces with a computer and experiences a simulated or virtual world.  From a user’s standpoint, in virtual reality, they no longer experience the world around them (what we would call reality), but rather, it seems as if they have been transported to another world (the virtual world or the simulation).  This simulation can resemble reality, potentially to the point of the two being indistinguishable. Alternatively, it can resemble a fantasy setting, a primitive 16-bit computer graphical interface, or anything else, depending on the programming.  What is most important is that the user’s experience is of this virtual world that is contained within a computer or computer network.

The virtual world within an ancestor simulation recreates the past (Bostrom 6).  The most well-know example is in The Matrix. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and other people from Zion, a city in the real world, interface with a computer that projects their consciousness into an ancestor simulation called the Matrix. This simulation recreates, as the Architect² explains in The Matrix Reloaded, “the peak of human civilization,” the late Twentieth Century.  Neo and the others live in the future,  in the 28th or 29th century³, thus when they enter the Matrix, they experience the past, from their perspective. 

Although an ancestor simulation recreates the past, it does not need to be historically accurate (Hanson 2, Jenkins 25).  The Matrix is used to keep humans under control, unaware of their enslavement in the real world. This does not require an accurate representation of the past, as the goal is not reenactment.  The Architect built the Matrix through writing a series of algorithms. Thus, events happen because of the programming. If the content of the ancestor simulation is dependent upon the programming, then the past within them (and the present within them) is malleable (Barnett 372).  Similarly, when Geordi uses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels to program the holodeck in “Elementary, Dear Data,” the resultant ancestor simulation is based upon a past only contained in literature. The programming of an ancestor simulation—and thus the reality contained within it—will depend on the goals of the programmer.  The Architect wants to control humans. Geordi and Data want to solve a mystery and role-play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Because the present is programmed and malleable, those who control the simulation can change the program and create changes in the world, taking away agency and control from the users.  In The Matrix, the Agents (enforcement artificial intelligences [AIs] within the simulation) track Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and their shipmates to an abandoned building, then change the program to wall off all exits, trapping them within. If reality is real and not a simulation, then this malleability is not possible.

Most of the people seen within a simulation could be users, such as in the Matrix, where each person is either a human logged into the Matrix or an AI that resides within.  Or, as on the holodeck, the majority of the people within the simulation could be just programs, that is, “humans simulated only at a level sufficient for the fully simulated people [the users] not to notice anything suspicious.” (Bostrom 13) On the holodeck, Geordi and Data are aware that the people they meet are just programs, but the two of them play along, behaving as if they are interacting with real people.  

 

Powering Up in Ancestor Simulations 

When Moriarty gains awareness that he is a simulated human, he also realizes that Geordi and Data are in a position of power over him.  Moriarty, being the criminal mastermind, wants the same, if not more, power. He minimizes his differences from Geordi and Data. He realizes that he is insubstantial compared to them, but he finds this unimportant, stating “Cogito, ergo sum.”   Nor does he see their being from the future as a key to their power. Instead, he recognizes that true power lies in the hands of those who can travel in and out of the simulation. Therefore, Moriarty’s greatest desire is to leave the holodeck.  

Similarly, in the beginning of The Matrix, Trinity outfights and evades a group of police officers.  Both Trinity and the police officers are humans; her power comes from her ability to enter and leave the Matrix.  Gaining this led to her developing faster reflexes, greater speed, and more strength than humans who cannot leave the Matrix.  Those only within the Matrix are not able to understand the programmed nature of the simulation; as we see during Neo’s martial arts training, humans must leave the simulation to learn how to bend and break its rules.

This also applies to AIs within the Matrix.  One of the most powerful AIs is the Merovingian, an underworld lord amongst the AIs.  In The Matrix Revolutions, we learn that part of his power comes from his control of the illicit movement of AIs between the machine city in the real world and the Matrix.  Further, just like humans, AIs can be trapped within the Matrix. Agent Smith, an enforcement AI, reveals in the first movie that what he wants most of all is to be able to leave the Matrix, but cannot. From his interactions with Neo, he gains the ability to replicate, taking over other AIs within the Matrix. Interestingly, as he gains power, he also develops the ability to leave the Matrix and enter the body of a human in The Matrix Reloaded.  Just like Trinity, who, being able to enter and exit the Matrix, is more powerful than the humans within the Matrix, he becomes the most powerful AI, taking over the Matrix itself.  His power even extends to the real world, where he threatens the very existence of the machine city and all other AIs (The Matrix Revolutions).  

Consistently, throughout the use of ancestor simulations in media, power is displayed through the ability to travel between the simulation and the real world. Once users become aware of the simulation, yet lack this power, they seek it out; those who have the power use it to maintain or wrest away control over others.

 

Enter or Exit the Matrix?

Narratives involving ancestor simulations fall into one of two categories.  The viewpoint character can be someone within the simulation, or the viewpoint character can be some from outside the simulation.  This dichotomy seems obvious. When you have a room, some people will be inside, others, outside. However, in ancestor simulations this dichotomy has implications beyond simply inside and outside.  If the viewpoint character is someone within the simulation, their world is a simulation, and they might be a simulation, as well. These narratives involve the viewpoint character finding out about the simulation, such as in The Matrix, and the viewpoint character gains agency through finding a way out of the simulation.  

If the viewpoint character is outside of a simulation, then the simulation is something they know about, their world is real, and they are real.  The narratives here involve entering and exiting the simulation, using the simulation for entertainment, study, or similar purposes. The viewpoint characters may control the simulation; if not, they are at least in a position of power over those confined within.

 

The Ghost in the Holodeck  

The crew of the Enterprise interacts with the holodeck much like how people used computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Geordi and Data turn on the holodeck, load a simulation, interact with the simulation, then leave, turning off the holodeck.  Viewers who used PCs would be accustomed to a similar routine: they turned on the computer, ran MS Windows from a DOS command prompt, ran a program within MS Windows, then, having finished entering data into a spreadsheet, writing using a word processor, or playing a game, the users would shut down the computer until it was needed again.

As viewpoint characters, Geordi and Data interact with the holodeck from outside the simulation.  From the viewer’s perspective, the characters are in the future (the Twenty-Fourth Century); they travel into the viewer’s past (the Nineteenth Century).  Both periods provide distance for viewers, as neither would be contemporaneous. 

In “Elementary, Dear Data,” Geordi programs the holodeck to create a mystery based upon a Sherlock Holmes novel.  When Data recognizes the story and immediately incriminates the villain without uncovering any clues, Geordi has the computer change the program; the inadvertent result is that a simulation of Professor Moriarty is created which has consciousness, unlike the other holodeck simulations.  Moriarty realizes that he inhabits a simulation and does not have the power to leave, although he knows that Geordi and Data do. The plot of the episode and its 1993 sequel, “Ship in a Bottle,” revolve around his failed attempts to exit the simulation.

When Moriarty takes control of the ship’s computer in “Elementary, Dear Data,” he gains agency and attempts to barter control of the ship for the ability to leave the holodeck.  However, his power is limited, as the crew, outside of the holodeck, is still able to devise ways to counter Moriarty. The plot is resolved through Picard offering to save Moriarty to a memory bank and search for a way to allow him to leave the holodeck.  As Moriarty never gained the means to leave the holodeck, he could not wrest away control of the simulation.

This changes in “Ship in a Bottle,” where Moriarty disempowers Picard and Data through programming a simulation of the Enterprise within the holodeck.  Picard and Data cannot reenter the real Enterprise, putting them on equal footing with Moriarty, both being trapped within the simulation.

In both episodes, the viewpoint characters, Data, Geordi, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, are in a position of power, with the ability to travel in and out of the simulation, even shutting it down, reprogramming parameters, and so forth, resembling how viewers at the time interacted with computers.  Control, including mobility in and out of the simulation, is lost only partially or temporarily.  

 

Alice’s Adventures Beyond the Now 

I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice,” Morpheus comments to Neo when they first meet.  “You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.” Neo’s experience of the past few days, just prior to his disconnection from the Matrix, had been surreal—Agents had captured Neo, and while holding him, had transformed his face to silence him and had inserted a probe into his abdomen.  In both The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, the viewpoint characters, Neo and Douglas Hall respectively, start the movies in a position similar to Moriarty at the start of “Elementary, Dear Data”: they are both within the simulation and unaware of the simulation.  The characters are themselves powerless, as they are not in control of their situations.  

Morpheus brings Neo out of the simulation.  In the real world, he learns about the simulation, how to travel in and out of it, and the knowledge of the simulation lets him also learn how to manipulate it.  By the end of the movie, he is no longer at the mercy of others. The Agents flee from him. He even survives death within the Matrix, a supposedly impossible feat.

The Thirteenth Floor also begins with Douglas in a powerless situation. His close friend and boss, Hannon Fuller,has died, and Douglas has been set up as the killer.  A detective from the LAPD tells him not to leave the city. He had thought that he was Hannon’s heir, which would give him control of Hannon’s company, but a mysterious woman claiming to be Hannon’s daughter appears, Jane Fuller, and Hannon’s will had been changed to give her control of the company.  Douglas is unaware that he lives in a simulation of a late Twenty Century Los Angeles. Jane and her estranged husband, David, have been manipulating the simulation. Both have doubles within the simulation that they control when logged in. This explains Hannon’s death: Douglas is David’s double, and David took control of Douglas’s body to kill Hannon.  David’s power over Douglas comes from his ability to travel in and out of the simulation. Douglas cannot counter this, and only Jane, who can also travel in and out of the simulation, can save him. She arranges David’s death within the simulation, which places Douglas’s consciousness into David’s body. Douglas can move into the real world, no longer manipulated by David, and now has control over himself.

Unlike the depiction in Star Trek: The Next Generation, computers are no longer devices that humans have complete control over, with only temporary setbacks.  Early in The Thirteenth Floor, Hannon wants to shut down a simulation of the early Twentieth Century that he has built.  But he finds out that his own world is a simulation, run by a computer that he cannot control.  The Matrix takes this even further, with most humans serving as power generators for the machines, enslaved, and the remaining humans at war with the machines. 

Neo and Douglas are trapped in the present, unable to move into the future, until they can understand and use the technology that enables them to move in and out of the simulation.  The simulation is placed in the present (from the viewer’s perspective), the late 1990s. This gives viewers a sense of immediacy to their situations. The movies are not about the far future or the past; they are about the present moment in time.  We can imagine that people in the late 1990s felt similarly. Computers were becoming more commonplace, but not a necessity. Not everyone had access to this technology, creating a technological divide, not just of those with computers and without, but those with the knowledge of how to use computers and those without.

In The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, the people within the simulation who do not have the knowledge or technology to move from the simulation to the real world can be seen as caught within the present, unable to move into the future.  Access to knowledge and technology opens up new possibilities; lack of access entraps, whether we are aware of the entrapment or not. This characterized people’s relationship with technology in the late 1990s.  During periods of rapid change, the world around us can feel unreal. What we have learned from our parents about life no longer applies. We have to adapt to the present and the future, with some people resisting change, and others embracing it, but no one quite knowing where we will end up.  In the liminal time of the late 1990s, stories where the characters also live in an unreal world, with power in the hands of those who understood computers and technology, would be particularly appealing. 

The depictions of ancestor simulations in both movies mirrors the paradox between people’s increased dependency upon and discomfort with computers that developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The present had a sense of unreality, and when Morpheus said, “I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice,” he was talking not just to Neo, but to those sitting in the theater, watching. 

 

We'll Make Heaven A Place On Earth” 

The Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” shows a different relationship between people and ancestor simulations.  In the episode, Kelly and Yorkie meet in San Junipero, an ancestor simulation of a coastal party town.  Multiple iterations of San Junipero exist; we see the characters in the same town in four different years, 1980, 1987, 1996, and 2002.

People suffering from dementia access San Junipero for “immersive nostalgia therapy.”  People in hospice care, such as Kelly and Yorkie, can obtain a “trial run” where they access the simulation for five hours a week.  Also, upon death, people can “pass over,” that is, have their consciousness digitized and uploaded to the simulation, existing only within the simulation.  People who have passed over comprise the majority of the users—Kelly remarks at one point that she believes 80 to 85 percent of the people are dead. This makes San Junipero essentially a digital heaven.

Unlike other simulations, those within San Junipero are aware of the simulation, as entering it was a choice.  There appears to be no population who believes the simulation is real, except potentially service personnel, such as the bartenders, who appear only as background characters.  This reverses the situation we saw earlier, where Moriarty, Neo, and Douglas sought to escape the simulation. Here, the people within the simulation do not want to return to the real world. 

Trial run users are limited in how long they can access the simulation because, as Kelly says, there is a concern that if they spend too much time inside, the users “dissociate body from mind.”  The connotation is that users would rather be in San Junipero than the real world. And, this is certainly Yorkie’s experience. She sees it as a paradise and does not understand Kelly’s reluctance to pass over. 

The real world is displayed as a place of constraints: nursing homes, attendants accompanying you, disabilities, and family approvals required.  Freedom is the allure of the simulation, where the constraints of life are left behind, and even the ultimate constraint, death, is void. Nevertheless, this freedom is duplicitous.  To access the simulation for more than a few hours a week, users must pass over. Freedom comes at the cost of a limitation, the loss of the ability to enter and leave the simulation. Time is also a constraint: do you want to log into 1980, 1987, 1996, and 2002?  There appears to be nothing beyond the suburbs around San Junipero, limiting movement to the city and its vicinity. And there can only be so many bars and clubs within the city. Even with all the choices of venue within San Junipero, when Yorkie is looking for Kelly, there are only two places where she can be found, Tucker’s or the Quagmire. 

If users gain power from being able to move in and out of an ancestor simulation, then when Kelly and Yorkie chose euthanasia to allow them to stay in San Junipero full-time, they give up power. In exchange, they gain a Cockaigne.  At the end of the episode, we see the computer bank that houses San Junipero. Robots glide along corridors, the walls covered with rows of small, round capsules, lights flashing on their ends. A robot inserts one of these into a socket, and then moves along.  Kelly and Yorkie are shown dancing at Tucker’s, then capsules are shown in sockets labeled SJ 521-12 015 and SJ 521-12 016, suggesting that these contain the digitized consciousness of the two. If one were unplugged, presumably the person would leave the simulation.  Those within the simulation have subjective freedom; however, access control and power are clearly in the hands of someone else. The grand illusion is complete. Users gain paradise; the cost is giving up control. Those with power in “San Junipero” have gained what the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded desires: a means to convince users to accept the simulation.

When we see the computer bank that houses San Junipero, we see only robots, not humans.  This makes the ending ambiguous. We are led to believe that Kelly and Yorkie, prior to passing over, lived in the real world, but it is just as possible that their world was a simulation.  Instead of having their consciousness digitized upon their apparent death, it is just as possible that they were already digitized, and, when the robot inserts them into the computer bank labeled San Junipero 521-12, they were in fact being moved from one simulation to another.

Since the late 1990s, computers have become far more commonplace. Connectivity is taken for granted, with most of the population carrying a smartphone (essentially a pocket computer), allowing them to use a computer and access the internet from seemingly anywhere.  Our lives are mediated through Google, Siri, Facebook, and more. Despite privacy concerns and warnings about over-sharing on social media and calls to spend less time online, most people have not disconnected from Facebook and other social media platforms. It is hard to remember when using a computer was not taken for granted; the dissonance of a pre-computer past and the future reliant upon computers, which is the source of so much anxiety in The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, is no longer. The present is not seen as a questionable reality.  We have passed through the liminal period of the late 1990s.  

From the 1980s to today, we have seen a shift from computers being controlled, turned on and off, to control being contested between human and machine, to a dependency upon computers.  In the episode, Belinda Carlisle is heard singing, “Heaven is a place on earth.” Heaven is indeed a place on earth, but the episode shows us that this is only possible through computers.  Power has been given up – but to whom? It is as unclear as the ending of “San Junipero.” Here, humans no longer try to free themselves from a dependency upon technology, but embrace it. No digital heaven exists for viewers, but our reliance upon computers to run our world is undeniable.  During the closing credits, we hear Belinda Carlisle again, “Oh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Oh, heaven is a place on earth.” We do not have an answer to her question yet: what is it worth?  

            

Ancestor Simulations and Us

What is the allure of ancestor simulations?  Although they are not one of the primary tropes of science fiction, they are used repeatedly, and their depiction shifts over time.  They can speak to an unreality of the present moment as well as to nostalgia and a longing to understand the past. 

How users interact with ancestor simulations in media from the 1980s to today illustrate our increased dependency upon computers, as well as an increasing comfort with this dependency.  Some depictions can show us longing for a time when computers were not commonplace, such as Victorian London or a party town in the 1980s, but the irony is that in these, the ancestor simulation is a result of computers remediating our history.  

What is the cost of this growing dependency?  The crew of the Enterprise visits the past in the holodeck, but returns to the future.  Neo and Douglas must fight to gain the ability to move to the future.  However, for Kelly and Yorkie, there is no future worth living for. In our lives, where we are now dependent upon our cell phones and instant access to data, dependency upon computers is not questioned, and despite the late advent of consumer protection and privacy laws into the digital realm, being controlled is accepted, as long as you have the perception of agency.  Neo and Douglas would give up their lives for freedom; Kelly and Yorkie give up their lives for a digital immortality and simulated freedom, at least until someone pulls the plug.   

 

Endnotes

1. Ancestor simulation was coined by Nick Bostrom as a simulation of “the entire mental history of humankind.” (6)  Robin Hanson and Peter Jenkins use “historical simulation” as a synonym for ancestor simulation (Hanson 2, Jenkins 24-26).

2. The Architect is the AI who built and, presumably, runs the Matrix in its current and prior iterations.

3. The Wachowskis are ambiguous regarding what year the franchise takes place in.  Morpheus originally tells Neo that it is 2199, but later, the Architect reveals that the current Neo lives in the sixth iteration of the Matrix (each cycle is about 100 years).  Morpheus wasn’t aware of the prior five iterations, so this would add 500 years to his date, bringing it to 2699. (This date is supported by The Matrix Wiki [“2199"].)

But, the Architect further reveals that there were two failed versions of the Matrix.  Persephone also references "a much older version of the Matrix" when she takes Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity into her chateau in The Matrix Reloaded.  It is unclear how long either of these versions ran before they crashed.  It might be safe to say that they lasted less than the current cycle of 100 years, otherwise they might not be seen as a “monumental failure,” to quote the Architect.  Assuming, therefore, both lasted more than a year and less than 90 years, the date of the trilogy is somewhere between 2701 and 2879.

4. I think, therefore I am.

5. MS Windows 2.0 was released in 1987, and the more popular MS Windows 3.0 was released in 1990.  Of course, some users at the time only ran programs within DOS, and others used alternative platforms and their associated operating systems, e.g. Macintosh System Software.

 

Works Cited 


"2199." The Matrix Wiki, https://matrix.fandom.com/wiki/2199

P. Chad Barnett. “Reviving Cyberpunk: (Re)Constructing the Subject and Mapping Cyberspace in the Wachowski Brothers' Film The Matrix.”  Extrapolation, Vol. 41, No. 4, 2000, pp. 359-374.

Bostrom, Nick. “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?”  Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 211, 2003, pp. 243-255.

Day, Jennifer Cheeseman, Alex Janus, and Jessica Davis.  “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2003.” Current Population Reports.  US Census Bureau, 2005.

Elementary, Dear Data.”  Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 3, Paramount Domestic Television, 1988.

Hanson, Robin.  “How to Live in a Simulation.”  Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 7, 2001, https://www.jetpress.org/volume7/simulation.htm.

Jenkins, Peter.  “Historical Simulations - Motivational, Ethical and Legal Issues.”  Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, August 2006, pp. 23-42.

The Matrix.  Written and directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Warner Bros., 1999.

The Matrix Reloaded.  Written and directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Warner Bros., 2003.

The Matrix Revolutions.  Written and directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Warner Bros., 2003.

Newburger, Eric C.  “Computer Use in the United States.”  Current Population Reports. US Census Bureau, 1999.

Ryan, Camille and Jamie M. Lewis.  “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2015.”  American Community Survey Reports.  US Census Bureau, 2017. 

San Junipero.”  Black Mirror,Series 3, Episode 4, House of Tomorrow Productions, 2016.

Ship in a Bottle.”  Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 6, Episode 12, Paramount Domestic Television, 1993.

The Thirteenth Floor.  Written by Daniel F. Galouye, Josef Rusnak, and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez; directed by Josef Rusnak; Columbia Pictures, 1999.




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