[Paleopsych] CRN: Dangers of Molecular Nanotechnology

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Dangers of Molecular Nanotechnology
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
[I think this is a couple of years old.]

Current Results of Our Research

    These pages, marked with GREEN headings, are published for [15]comment
    and criticism. These are not our final findings; some of these
    opinions will probably change.

      [16]LOG OF UPDATES
      [17]CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings
      [18]Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing
      [19]Products of Molecular Manufacturing
      [20]Benefits of Molecular Manufacturing
      Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing   <| YOU ARE HERE
      [21]No Simple Solutions
      [22]Administration Options
      [23]The Need for Early Development
      [24]The Need for International Development
      [25]Thirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies

Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing

    Overview:  [26]Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) will be a significant
    breakthrough, comparable perhaps to the Industrial Revolution--but
    compressed into a few years. This has the potential to disrupt many
    aspects of society and politics. The power of the technology may cause
    two competing nations to enter a disruptive and unstable arms race.
    Weapons and surveillance devices could be made small, cheap, powerful,
    and very numerous. Cheap manufacturing and duplication of designs
    could lead to economic upheaval. Overuse of inexpensive products could
    cause widespread [27]environmental damage. Attempts to control these
    and other risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create demand for
    a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop;
    small [28]nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully
    dangerous. There are numerous severe risks--including several
    different kinds of risk--that cannot all be prevented with the same
    approach. Simple, one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is
    unlikely to evolve without careful planning.

    Molecular nanotechnology suddenly will create many risks.
    The potential benefits of [29]molecular manufacturing are immense, but
    so are the dangers. In order to avert the dangers, we must thoroughly
    understand them, and then develop comprehensive plans to prevent them.
    As explained in our [30]Timeline and [31]Products pages, molecular
    nanotechnology (MNT) will allow the rapid prototyping and inexpensive
    manufacture of a wide variety of powerful products. This capability
    will arrive rather suddenly, since the final steps of developing the
    technology are likely to be much easier than the initial steps, and
    many of them can be pre-planned. The sudden arrival of molecular
    manufacturing may not allow time to adjust to its implications.
    Adequate preparation is essential.
    CRN has identified several separate and severe risks.

    The first step in understanding the dangers is to identify them. CRN
    has begun that process here, listing and describing several separate
    and severe risks. Although probably incomplete, the list is already

    [32]Economic disruption from an abundance of cheap products
    [33]Economic oppression from artificially inflated prices
    [34]Personal risk from criminal or terrorist use
    [35]Personal or social risk from abusive restrictions
    [36]Social disruption from new products/lifestyles
    [37]Unstable arms race
    [38]Collective environmental damage from unregulated products
    [39]Free-range self-replicators (gray goo) -- downgraded as a risk factor
    [40]Black market in nanotech (increases other risks)
    [41]Competing nanotech programs (increases other risks)
    [42]Attempted relinquishment (increases other risks)

      Some of the dangers described here are [43]existential risks, that
    is, they may threaten the continued existence of humankind. Others
    could produce significant disruption but not cause our extinction. A
    combination of several risks could exacerbate the seriousness of each;
    any solution must take into account its effect on other risks.
      Some of these risks arise from too little regulation, and others
    from too much regulation. Several different kinds of regulation will
    be necessary in several different fields. An extreme or knee-jerk
    response to any of these risks will create fertile ground for other
    risks. The temptation to impose apparently obvious and simple
    solutions to problems in isolation must be avoided.  Other pages
    address the possibilities for [44]regulation; this one is concerned
    with discussing and analyzing the dangers.

    Disruption of the basis of economy is a strong possibility.
    The purchaser of a manufactured product today is paying for its
    design, raw materials, the labor and capital of manufacturing,
    transportation, storage, and sales. Additional money--usually a fairly
    low percentage--goes to the owners of all these businesses. If
    [45]nanofactories can produce a wide variety of products when and
    where they are wanted, most of this effort will become unnecessary.
    This raises several questions about the nature of a post-nanotech
    economy. Will products become cheaper?  Will capitalism disappear?
    Will most people retire--or be unemployed?  The flexibility of
    nanofactory manufacturing, and the radical improvement of its
    products, imply that non-nanotech products will not be able to compete
    in many areas. If nanofactory technology is exclusively owned or
    controlled, will this create the world's biggest monopoly, with
    extreme potential for abusive anti-competitive practices?  If it is
    not controlled, will the availability of cheap copies mean that even
    the designers and brand marketers don't get paid?  Much further study
    is required, but it seems clear that molecular manufacturing could
    severely disrupt the present economic structure, greatly reducing the
    value of many material and human resources, including much of our
    current infrastructure. Despite utopian post-capitalist hopes, it is
    unclear whether a workable replacement system could appear in time to
    prevent the human consequences of massive job displacement.
    Major investment firms are conscious of potential economic impact. In
    the mainstream financial community, there is growing recognition that
    nanotechnology represents a significant wave of innovation with the
    potential to restructure the economy. Here, for example, is an excerpt
    from an analysis prepared for investors by [46]Credit Suisse First
      Nanotechnology is a classic, general-purpose technology (GPT). Other
    GPTs, including steam engines, electricity, and railroads, have been
    the basis for major economic revolutions. GPTs typically start as
    fairly crude technologies, with limited uses, but then rapidly spread
    into new applications.
      All prior GPTs have led directly to major upheavals in the
    economy--the process of creative destruction. And nanotechnology may
    be larger than any of the other GPTs that preceded it. Creative
    destruction is the process by which a new technology or product
    provides an entirely new and better solution, resulting in the
    complete replacement of the original technology or product. Investors
    should expect that creative destruction will not only continue, but
    will also likely accelerate, and nanotechnology will be at the core.
      What does this mean from a practical standpoint? Because of the
    advent of nanotechnology, we believe new companies will displace a
    high percentage of today's leading companies. The majority of the
    companies in today's Dow Jones industrials Index are unlikely to be
    there 20 years from now. (Excerpted with permission from "Big Money in
    Thinking Small", authored by Michael Mauboussin and Kristen
      Along those same lines, Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital, editor of the
    [47]Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, writes: "Quite simply, the world is
    about to be rebuilt (and improved) from the atom up. That means tens
    of trillions of dollars to be spent on everything: clothing... food...
    cars... housing... medicine...the devices we use to communicate and
    recreate...the quality of the air we breathe...and the water we drink,
    are all about to undergo profound and fundamental change. And as a
    result, so will the socio and economic structure of the world.
    Nanotechnology will shake up just about every business on the planet."
    MNT products may be vastly overpriced relative to their cost,
    perpetuating unnecessary poverty.
    By today's commercial standards, products of [48]MNT would be
    immensely valuable. A monopoly would allow the owners of the
    technology to charge high rates for all products, and make high
    profits. However, if carried to its logical conclusion, such a
    practice would deny cheap lifesaving technologies (as simple as water
    filters or mosquito netting) to millions of people in desperate need.
    Competition will eventually drive prices down, but an early monopoly
    is likely for several reasons. Due to other risks listed on this page,
    it is unlikely that a completely unregulated commercial market will be
    allowed to exist. In any case, the high cost of development will limit
    the number of competing projects. Finally, a company that pulls ahead
    of the pack could use the resulting huge profits to stifle competition
    by means such as broad enforcement of expansive patents and lobbying
    for special-interest industry restrictions.
      The price of a product usually falls somewhere between its value to
    the purchaser and its cost to the seller. Molecular manufacturing
    could result in products with a value orders of magnitude higher than
    their cost. It is likely that the price will be set closer to the
    value than to the cost; in this case, customers will be unable to gain
    most of the benefit of "the nanotech revolution". If pricing products
    by their value is accepted, the poorest people may continue to die of
    poverty, in a world where products costing literally a few cents would
    save a life. If (as seems likely) this situation is accepted more by
    the rich than by the poor, social unrest could add its problems to
    untold unnecessary human suffering. A present-day example is the
    agreement that the WTO was working on to provide affordable medicines
    to poor countries--which the Bush administration [49]partially
    prevented (following heavy lobbying by American pharmaceutical
    companies) despite [50]furious opposition from every other WTO member.
    Criminals and terrorists could make effective use of the technology.
    Criminals and terrorists with stronger, more powerful, and much more
    compact devices could do serious damage to society. Defenses against
    these devices may not be installed immediately or comprehensively.
    Terrorists could have a field day. Chemical and biological weapons
    could become much more deadly and much easier to conceal. Many other
    types of terrifying devices are possible, including several varieties
    of remote assassination weapons that would be difficult to detect or
    avoid. If such devices were available from a black market or a home
    factory, it would be quite difficult to detect them before they were
    used; a random search capable of spotting them would be a clear
    violation of current human rights standards in most civilized
    countries. Detecting a criminal user after the fact might also be
    difficult; since many devices can be computer-controlled and
    networked, the criminal does not have to be at the scene.
    Extreme solutions and abusive regulations may be attempted.
    A patchwork of extreme solutions may be created in response to the
    other risks described here. This would not be a good idea. Many of
    these problems appear to have an obvious solution. However, in each
    case, that solution, applied to the extreme necessary to impact the
    target problem, would exacerbate another problem and make the overall
    situation worse. A collection of extreme solutions will surely be
    undesirable; it will either be ineffective (and ineffective policies
    can still be quite harmful) or will create massive human suffering or
    human rights violation.
      There is a possibility that abusive restrictions and policies may be
    attempted, such as [51]round-the-clock surveillance of every citizen.
    Such surveillance might be possible with AI programs similar to one
    currently being developed at MIT, which is able to analyze a video
    feed, learn familiar patterns, and notice unfamiliar patterns.
    Molecular manufacturing will allow the creation of very small,
    inexpensive supercomputers that conceivably could run a program of
    constant surveillance on everyone. Surveillance devices would be easy
    to manufacture cheaply in quantity. Surveillance is only one possible
    kind of abuse. With the ability to build billions of devices, each
    with millions of parts, for a total cost of a few dollars, any
    automated technology that can be applied to one person can be applied
    to everyone. Any scenario of physical or psychiatric control that
    explores the limits of nanotechnology will sound science-fictional and
    implausible. The point is not the plausibility of any given scenario;
    it is that the range of possibilities is limited mainly by the
    imagination and cruelty of those with power. Greed and power are
    strong motivators for abusive levels of control; the fear of nanotech
    and other advanced technologies in private hands adds an additional
    impetus for abusive rule.
    Society could be disrupted by the availability of new "immoral"
    New products and lifestyles may cause significant social disruption.
    For example, medical devices could be built into needles narrower than
    a bacterium, perhaps allowing easy brain modification or stimulation,
    with effects similar to any of a variety of psychoactives. Most
    societies have found it desirable to forbid certain products: guns in
    Britain, seedless watermelon in Iran, sex toys in Texas, various drugs
    in various societies such as hashish in the United States and alcohol
    in Muslim societies. Although many of these restrictions are based on
    moral principles not shared by the majority of the world's population,
    the fact that the restrictions exist at all indicates the sensitivity
    of societies--or at least their rulers--to undesired products. The
    ability to make banned products using personal factories could be
    expected to be at least somewhat disruptive to society, and could
    provide an impetus for knee-jerk and overly broad restrictions on the
    technology. New lifestyles enabled by new technology could also cause
    social disruption. Whereas demand for banned products already exists,
    lifestyles develop over time, so the effects of lifestyle change are
    likely to be less acute. However, some lifestyle possibilities
    (particularly in the areas of sex, drugs, entertainment, and body or
    genetic modification) are likely to be sufficiently disturbing to
    onlookers that their very existence would cause disruption.
    Nanotech weapons would be extremely powerful and could lead to a
    dangerously  unstable arms race.
    Molecular manufacturing raises the possibility of horrifically
    effective weapons. As an example, the smallest insect is about 200
    [52]microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a
    nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting
    toxin into unprotected humans. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin
    is about 100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. As
    many as 50 billion toxin-carrying devices--theoretically enough to
    kill every human on earth--could be packed into a single suitcase.
    Guns of all sizes would be far more powerful, and their bullets could
    be self-guided. Aerospace hardware would be far lighter and higher
    performance; built with minimal or no metal, it would be much harder
    to spot on radar. Embedded computers would allow remote activation of
    any weapon, and more compact power handling would allow greatly
    improved robotics. These ideas barely scratch the surface of what's
      An important question is whether nanotech weapons would be
    stabilizing or destabilizing. Nuclear weapons, for example, perhaps
    can be credited with preventing major wars since their invention.
    However, nanotech weapons are not very similar to nuclear weapons.
    Nuclear stability stems from at least four factors. The most obvious
    is the massive destructiveness of all-out nuclear war. All-out
    nanotech war is probably equivalent in the short term, but nuclear
    weapons also have a high long-term cost of use (fallout,
    contamination) that would be much lower with nanotech weapons. Nuclear
    weapons cause indiscriminate destruction; nanotech weapons could be
    targeted. Nuclear weapons require massive research effort and
    industrial development, which can be tracked far more easily than
    nanotech weapons development; nanotech weapons can be developed much
    more rapidly due to faster, cheaper prototyping. Finally, nuclear
    weapons cannot easily be delivered in advance of being used; the
    opposite is true of nanotech. Greater uncertainty of the capabilities
    of the adversary, less response time to an attack, and better targeted
    destruction of the enemy's resources during an attack all make
    nanotech arms races less stable. Also, unless nanotech is tightly
    controlled, the number of nanotech nations in the world could be much
    higher than the number of nuclear nations, increasing the chance of a
    regional conflict blowing up.
      [53]Admiral David E. Jeremiah, Vice-Chairman (ret.), U.S. Joint
    Chiefs of Staff, in an [54]address at the 1995 Foresight Conference on
    Molecular Nanotechnology said: "Military applications of molecular
    manufacturing have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to
    radically change the balance of power."
      An excellent [55]essay by [56]Tom McCarthy (unaffiliated with CRN)
    explores these points in more detail. He discusses the ways that MNT
    can destabilize international relations: MNT will reduce economic
    influence and interdependence, encourage targeting of people as
    opposed to factories and weapons, and reduce the ability of a nation
    to monitor its potential enemies. It may also, by enabling many
    nations to be globally destructive, eliminate the ability of powerful
    nations to "police" the international arena. By making small groups
    self-sufficient, it can encourage the breakup of existing nations.
    Collective environmental damage is a natural consequence of cheap
    ([57]MORE) Molecular manufacturing allows the cheap creation of
    incredibly powerful devices and products. How many of these products
    will we want?  What environmental damage will they do?  The range of
    possible damage is vast, from personal low-flying supersonic aircraft
    injuring large numbers of animals to collection of solar energy on a
    sufficiently large scale to modify the planet's albedo and directly
    affect the environment. Stronger materials will allow the creation of
    much larger machines, capable of excavating or otherwise destroying
    large areas of the planet at a greatly accelerated pace. It is too
    early to tell whether there will be economic incentive to do this.
    However, given the large number of activities and purposes that would
    damage the environment if taken to extremes, and the ease of taking
    them to extremes with molecular manufacturing, it seems likely that
    this problem is worth worrying about. Some forms of damage can result
    from an aggregate of individual actions, each almost harmless by
    itself. Such damage is quite hard to prevent by persuasion, and laws
    frequently don't work either; centralized restriction on the
    technology itself may be a necessary part of the solution. Finally,
    the extreme compactness of nanomanufactured machinery will tempt the
    use of very small products, which can easily turn into nano-litter
    that will be hard to clean up and may cause health problems.
    Gray goo was an early concern of nanotechnology. When
    nanotechnology-based manufacturing was first proposed, a concern arose
    that tiny manufacturing systems might run amok and 'eat' the
    biosphere, reducing it to copies of themselves. In 1986, Eric Drexler
    wrote, "We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating
    assemblers." More recent designs by Drexler and others make it clear,
    though, that replicating assemblers will not be used for
    manufacturing--[58]nanofactories will be much more efficient at
    building products, and a nanofactory is nothing like a 'gray goo'
      Gray goo would entail five capabilities integrated into one small
    package. These capabilities are: Mobility - the ability to travel
    through the environment; Shell - a thin but effective barrier to keep
    out diverse chemicals and ultraviolet light; Control - a complete set
    of blueprints and the computers to interpret them (even working at the
    nanoscale, this will take significant space); Metabolism - breaking
    down random chemicals into simple feedstock; and Fabrication - turning
    feedstock into nanosystems. A nanofactory would use tiny
    [59]fabricators, but these would be inert if removed or unplugged from
    the factory. The rest of the listed requirements would require
    [60]substantial engineering and integration.
    Gray goo won't happen by accident, but eventually could be developed
    on purpose. Although gray goo has essentially no military and no
    commercial value, and only limited terrorist value, it could be used
    as a tool for blackmail. Cleaning up a single gray goo outbreak would
    be quite expensive and might require severe physical disruption of the
    area of the outbreak (atmospheric and oceanic goos deserve special
    concern for this reason). Another possible source of gray goo release
    is irresponsible hobbyists. The challenge of creating and releasing a
    self-replicating entity apparently is irresistible to a certain
    personality type, as shown by the large number of computer viruses and
    worms in existence. We probably cannot tolerate a community of
    "[61]script kiddies" releasing many modified versions of goo.
      Development and use of molecular manufacturing poses absolutely no
    risk of creating gray goo by accident at any point. However, goo type
    systems do not appear to be ruled out by the laws of physics, and we
    cannot ignore the possibility that the five stated requirements could
    be combined deliberately at some point, in a device small enough that
    cleanup would be costly and difficult. Drexler's 1986 statement can
    therefore be updated: We cannot afford criminally irresponsible misuse
    of powerful technologies. Having lived with the threat of nuclear
    weapons for half a century, we already know that.
      We wish we could take gray goo off CRN's list of [62]dangers, but we
    can't. It eventually may become a concern requiring special policy.
    Gray goo will be highly difficult to build, however, and
    non-replicating [63]nano-weaponry may be substantially more dangerous
    and more imminent. Since there are greater risks from molecular
    manufacturing (such as falling into an unstable arms race) that may
    happen almost immediately after the technology is developed, CRN does
    not see gray goo as a primary concern.

    UPDATE: In June 2004, [64]Eric Drexler and [65]Chris Phoenix published
    a new paper on "[66]Safe Exponential Manufacturing", which puts the
    perceived gray goo threat into perspective.

    Too little or too much regulation can result in unrestricted
    Uncontrolled availability of MNT can result from either insufficient
    or overzealous regulation. Inadequate regulation would make it easy to
    obtain and use an unrestricted nanofactory. Overzealous regulation
    would create a pent-up demand for nanotech products, which if it gets
    strong enough, would fund espionage, cracking of restricted
    technology, or independent development, and eventually create a black
    market beyond the control of central authorities (nanofactories are
    very smugglable). Note that sufficiently abusive or restrictive
    regulation can motivate internal espionage; at least one atomic spy in
    the US was idealistically motivated. Uncontrolled availability of
    molecular manufacturing greatly increases many of the dangers cited
    Competing nanotech programs increase the danger.
    The existence of multiple MNT programs greatly increases some of the
    risks listed above. Each program provides a separate opportunity for
    the technology to be stolen or otherwise released from restriction.
    Each nation with an independent program is potentially a separate
    player in a nanotech arms race. The reduced opportunity for control
    may make restrictions harder to enforce, but this may lead to greater
    efforts to impose harsher restrictions. Reduced control also makes it
    less likely that a non-disruptive economic solution can develop.
    Relinquishment is counterproductive.
    Facing all these risks, there will be a strong temptation simply to
    outlaw the technology. However, we don't believe this can work. Many
    nations are already spending millions on basic nanotechnology; within
    a decade, advanced nanotech will likely be within the reach of large
    corporations. It can't be outlawed worldwide. And if the most
    risk-aware countries stop working on it, then the less responsible
    countries are the ones that will be developing it and dealing with it.
    Besides, legal regulation may not have much effect on covert military
      MNT may be delayed by strict regulation, but this would probably
    make things worse in the long run. If MNT development is delayed until
    it's relatively easy, it will then be a lot harder to keep track of
    all the development programs. Also, with a more advanced technology
    base, the development of MNT products could happen even faster than we
    have described, leaving less time to adjust to the societal
    Solving these problems won't be easy.
    Some of these risks arise from too little regulation, and others from
    too much regulation. Several different kinds of regulation will be
    necessary in several different fields. An extreme or knee-jerk
    response to any of these risks will simply create fertile ground for
    other risks. The risks are of several different types, so a single
    approach (commercial, military, free-information) cannot prevent all
    of them. Some of the risks are sufficiently extreme that society
    cannot adjust to the risk while testing various approaches to prevent
    it. A single gray goo release, or unstable nanotech arms race, is
    intolerable. Threading a path between all these risks will require
    careful advance planning

    [67]Support CRN

    DEVIL'S ADVOCATE -- [68]Submit your criticism, please!

    You're assuming only the bad guys will have nanotech.

      No. We're assuming that some bad, or just irresponsible, groups
      might get nanotech and misuse it before every good guy has all the
      technology they need to prevent every problem. In some cases the
      counter-technology won't be invented yet. And even if the
      counter-technology does exist, it probably won't be used as widely
      as it should be--like computer anti-virus programs today.

    But this is decades in the future.

      We think it's less than twenty years off--maybe less than fifteen.
      That's not much time to analyze the problems, and then design and
      implement solutions. If you knew that a year from now, you would
      have to walk a tightrope without a net, how soon would you start

    Nanotech won't really be that sudden or dangerous.

      Read our [69]Timeline and [70]Products pages to see why we think it

    (From Michael Vassar) Japan managed to prohibit guns for centuries,
    before Perry's gunboat finally forced a change.

      Primitive guns did not confer an overwhelming military advantage.
      Each gun required highly skilled labor and much time to make. No
      one could hope to take over the country even with guns, and they
      would have been destroyed by the Emperor for trying. By contrast,
      once the first nanofactory is made, it will be pretty easy to use
      and very easy to duplicate, and will provide an immense military
      advantage to its owners.

    This whole analysis is really too simplistic.

      Well, we have to start somewhere. Please [71]contact us and tell us
      what we're missing; we promise to listen to and think about all
      (polite) feedback.


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   17. http://www.crnano.org/overview.htm
   18. http://www.crnano.org/timeline.htm
   19. http://www.crnano.org/products.htm
   20. http://www.crnano.org/benefits.htm
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   42. http://www.crnano.org/dangers.htm#Relinquishment
   43. http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html
   44. http://www.crnano.org/administration.htm
   45. http://www.crnano.org/bootstrap.htm
   46. http://www.csfb.com/home/index/index.html
   47. http://www.newsletters.forbes.com/nanotech/index.php
   48. http://www.crnano.org/crnglossary.htm#MNT
   49. http://www.voanews.com/article.cfm?objectID=B04FA65B-82C2-4F78-AF59FF2BD6ADF796
   50. http://www.organicconsumers.org/corp/010302_globalization.cfm
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   52. http://www.crnano.org/crnglossary.htm#Micron
   53. http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nano4/jeremiah.html
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   55. http://www.mccarthy.cx/WorldSystem/
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   60. http://www.foresight.org/NanoRev/Ecophagy.html
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   64. http://www.foresight.org/FI/Drexler.html
   65. http://www.crnano.org/about_us.htm#Principals
   66. http://www.crnano.org/PR-IOP.htm
   67. http://www.crnano.org/support.htm
   68. mailto:cphoenix at CRNano.org?subject=Devil's%20Advocate
   69. http://www.crnano.org/timeline.htm
   70. http://www.crnano.org/products.htm
   71. http://www.crnano.org/contact.htm

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