Stoic advice column: should I worry about A.I. and automation?

artificial intelligence[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, here is my “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

D. asks: “How should a Stoic evaluate their thoughts about predictions for future A.I. and automation when they are concerned for human jobs and the value of the human being?”

Wow, this truly is Stoicism for the 21st century, and beyond! I doubt Seneca ever thought he had to contemplate that sort of ethical conundrum (though he probably should have thought more carefully about the institution of slavery, which he took for granted as one of the foundations of Roman power).

Let me begin by saying that — as both a biologist and a philosopher — I’m not really concerned with the sudden development of super-human A.I., the so-called Singularity event, here and here is why.

That said, more run of the mill A.I., as well as automation at many levels, is both a reality and a social concern, as your question implies. Of course, one could argue that this is nothing new. The famous Luddite movement of the early 19th century railed against, and unsuccessfully opposed, the introduction of weaving machinery at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. And when I was growing up in Italy in the ’70s workers at the FIAT motor company were protesting against early experiments in the robotization of their work place, fearing — correctly — that they would either lose their jobs or face lower pay in the future. All of this on top of the additional labor problems created by the recent trends in globalization and multinational corporatization.

I believe the Stoic take on this is to put human beings first, the efficiency of production a distant second, and corporate profits a very very last third. This for a number of reasons.

To begin with, as Marcus reminds us, our job is that of trying to be as decent a human being as possible, concerned with the welfare of others and of society at large:

“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1)

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations, IX.12)

This, of course, is in agreement with the general injunction to live “according to nature,” i.e., taking seriously our nature as social beings capable of reason. (See here my discussion of the relevant passage in Cicero’s De Finibus, book III, section 20.)

It is also in agreement with the famous Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the idea that we should “appropriate” other people’s concerns, most famously represented by the image of Hierocles’ concentric circles, centered in oneself but surrounded by those of family, friends, fellow citizens, and eventually humanity at large. (See the last section of my essay On Hierocles.)

Finally, your preoccupation is also in line with Epictetus’ discipline of action, which is itself related to the virtue of justice and the topos of ethics, arguably the most fundamental of the three spheres of Stoic study (the other two being physics and logic).

So it seems to me that you are on very solid Stoic ground when you worry about the effects of A.I. and automation on the welfare of fellow human beings. The question, of course, is what to do about it.

History — particularly the above mentioned Luddite movement — tells us that it is a fool’s errand to simply oppose the advancement of technology. Indeed, to do so would be a poor application of the virtue of prudence (phronesis), or practical wisdom. This is the one related to the discipline of assent, and it’s your guidance on how to navigate complex situations in the most ethical manner. I suggest that outright rejection of technology would not be the “prudent” (in the Stoic sense) thing to do.

Then what? I think a Stoic would want to fight for justice here, meaning neither the “social justice warrior” approach — which in my mind is well intentioned but smells too much of self-righteousness and even occasionally of narcissism — nor adopting a general theory of justice a la, for instance, John Rawls (because general theories of justice regularly come short of accounting for the complexity of actual human societies and situations). Rather, it means to always be mindful to treat other human beings justly, with fairness, even at a cost to one’s own convenience or finances.

Let me give you an example that has to do more with the “shared economy” than with automation per se, though the same principle applies. I live in New York City, where currently I enjoy — lucky for me — six basic choices in order to get around: I can drive (but I’m not crazy, I don’t own a car!); I can walk (which I do, often); I can use a bike (either my own, or the ones the city rents out — I do this occasionally, if the weather is okay); I can use public buses and subways (which I do most often); I can take a cab; or I can use one of the private car services like Lyft and Uber.

In the few instances in which I’m either forced, or it is honestly much more convenient, to take a cab or a car service, I always opt for cabs on the ground that their workers are treated better than those of the private services. When I do (rarely) use a private service, I always opt for Lyft over Uber, because of the notorious corporate culture at the latter company, which includes systemic sexual harassment of its female employees, as well as highly unethical treatment of both drivers and customers (the latter through the despicable practice of spiking fares even when it would be obviously objectionable to do so, like after a terrorist attack in Australia, when people were trying to get away from danger).

I’m perfectly aware that: i) the situation is complicated, because for instance in avoiding Uber I do indirectly hurt their drivers; and ii) that my individual choices are a small drop in a very large bucket.

Nonetheless, my own phronetic analysis led me to the above (always revisable, in the light of new facts or better reasoning) choices. Something similar can be done when it comes more directly to automation. For instance, once Amazon will introduce drone delivery I will choose either to opt for another provider or to pay an extra premium to have the “privilege” of my goods being delivered by an actual human being.

Finally, I also make a point of talking to my representatives in Congress and to vote for people who are defenders of strong labor laws aimed at minimizing the impact of modern technology (and corporate greed) on workers. I know, it ain’t easy, or convenient, to be a Stoic. But that has never been the promise:

“‘Is there no further reward?’ Do you look for any greater reward for a good man than to do what is noble and right? At Olympia you do not want anything else; you are content to have been crowned at Olympia. Does it seem to you so small and worthless a thing to be noble and good and happy?” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24)

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32 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: should I worry about A.I. and automation?

  1. I agree on the Yellow Cab over Uber choice.
    On the general encroachment of robotic labor into the general labor market, I think it is invertible and that we should be thinking in terms of MGI for everyone and testing the possibility of a pursuit of the Good Life for all human beings.
    One controversial area of the economy is the use of migrant workers to harvest agricultural produce under horrendous and highly exploitative conditions, I believe that this is one area where full automation should be implemented for the huge agribusiness corporations that are the worst offenders
    .

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  2. I should mention that the Luddite movement you mentioned is based somewhat on a mythology. David F. Noble did the main historical work on this (Chomsky & Yanis Varoufakis has cited his work often). The Luddites did not oppose the advancement of machinery. What they opposed was the deterioration of their productive labor in the face of advancement of machinery, because the highly class-conscious business elites designed the machines specifically designed to dumb down workers as a method of class warfare, even if it cut across their profits.

    (Below Citations)

    Yanis Varoufakis:

    “If you’re interested, there’s been some very interesting work done on this; the guy who’s done the best work is David Noble—for his sins he was denied tenure at M.I.T., and now he’s teaching in Canada. He wrote a book called Forces of Production, which is a pretty specialized technical analysis mainly of the development of numerical control of machinery, but he’s also got a good popular book out, called Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism. Unfortunately, this is the kind of book that’s published like in Katmandu or something—it’s published by a very small anarchist press in Chicago. But it’s very interesting, didn’t make him too popular in the Faculty Club and so on.

    One of the things he discusses there is Luddism [a movement of English workers who wrecked industrial machines, which began in 1811]. See, the Luddites are always accused of having wanted to destroy machinery, but it’s been known in scholarship for a long time that that’s not true— what they really wanted to do was to prevent themselves from being de-skilled, and Noble talks about this in his book. The Luddites had noth- ing against machinery itself, they just didn’t want it to destroy them, they wanted it to be developed in such a way that it would enhance their skills and their power, and not degrade and destroy them—which of course makes perfect sense. And that sentiment runs right throughout the work- ing-class movements of the nineteenth century, actually—and you can even see it today.” – (Understanding Power – Noam Chomsky)

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  3. I should probably add what was said before that for context:

    “See, in the Air Force and the Navy (where most of this took place), no- body cares about costs—because the taxpayer’s paying, so the development can be as expensive and inefficient as you like. And in that way, they were able to develop automation to the point where it could then be used to drive people out of work and make profits for corporations. For instance, take the history of automated numerical control of metal-cutting machines [i.e. translation of part specifications into mathematical information that can be fed into machines without the need for skilled machinists]. That was developed through the Air Force, it went on for decades, and finally it got effi- cient enough so that it could be handed over to the corporations and they could then throw out their workers. But it didn’t happen through market forces, not at all—it was the result of massive state intervention.

    Furthermore, if you look at the kind of automation that was developed, you see precisely what workers in the early labor movement were com- plaining about: being turned into mindless tools of production. I mean, au- tomation could have been designed in such a way as to use the skills of skilled machinists and to eliminate management—there’s nothing inherent in automation that says it can’t be used that way. But it wasn’t, believe me; it was used in exactly the opposite way. Automation was designed through the state system to demean and degrade people—to de-skill workers and increase managerial control. And again, that had nothing to do with the mar- ket, and it had nothing to do with the nature of the technology: it had to do with straight power interests. So the kind of automation that was devel- oped in places like the M.I.T. Engineering Department was very carefully designed so that it would create interchangeable workers and enhance managerial control—and that was not for economic reasons. I mean, study after study, including by management firms like Arthur D. Little and so on, show that managers have selected automation even when it cuts back on profits—just because it gives them more control over their workforce.” (Understanding Power)

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  4. I think that unpopular & unpleasant jobs (especially those that are dangerous) being automated can be seen as an important progressive development IF we are able to organize our economy in a way that provides the rest of the public to share the wealth of its productive capacities and engage in meaningful work elsewhere. But that requires a dramatic reorganization of the economy (probably well beyond what Sanders proposed during his campaign)

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  5. Albert,

    I’m not sure what part of the “myth” of Luddism I have endorsed. Last time I checked it was true that they destroyed some machinery. But of course they were not against machines per se, they were opposed to the change in life quality and income that those machine meant. Just like the case we are discussing now.

    And yes, agreed that automation can actually be a force for good, IF we structure the economy to take care of human, rather than corporate, needs. (For the record, no, corporations are not “people.”)

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  6. Harry,

    No, that would be a bad answer. It feeds into the stereotype of Stoics being passive and disengaged from social issues. Which is most definitely both historically and philosophically not the case.

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  7. “I’m not sure what part of the “myth” of Luddism I have endorsed. Last time I checked it was true that they destroyed some machinery. But of course they were not against machines per se, they were opposed to the change in life quality and income that those machine meant. Just like the case we are discussing now.”

    The myth of Luddism is that they destroyed the machinery not because they didn’t want their jobs and income taken away, but because they were aware that it was specifically used as class warfare to denigrate their productive labor. The Luddites are cited historically commonly in order to argue exactly what you said, that they had something against the role of machinery in the economy itself, when the machines could’ve been developed to work alongside workers. (a very common myth. I remember it being cited like that even by Dean Baker from CEPR, who I really respect)

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  8. To be clear to avoid confusion, the focus was that they didn’t want their labor to be denigrated. They wanted to be laborers who did meaningful work; they didn’t want to be treated as cogs in a machine, which the business elites wanted to do in order to control the population.

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  9. I seriously doubt the Luddites were aware of machinery being used for class warfare, and I have doubts that they were so used. I love Chomsky, but even he can be excessive some time. At any rate, this is very tangential to the OP, so I’m going to drop it. I’ll take a look at the link you posted.

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  10. “I seriously doubt the Luddites were aware of machinery being used for class warfare, and I have doubts that they were so used. I love Chomsky, but even he can be excessive some time. At any rate, this is very tangential to the OP, so I’m going to drop it. I’ll take a look at the link you posted.”

    That’s where you were completely wrong. They were aware, the laborers of the industrial revolution were highly class conscious and intelligent. It wasn’t something Chomsky himself said, he was simply citing the work of David Noble. And also extensively talked about by other scholars of the Industrial Revolution like David Montgomery, Norman Ware, and others.

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  11. For the record, corporations are persons. There are good reasons why this can be true, and unfortunately there are very bad implications in the manner in which the Supreme Court has interpreted it. In effect corporations have all of the benefits of personhood, and almost none of the responsibilities.

    It is highly unfortunate that it was the 14th amendment that the court used as a tool for the personhood of corporations. I am not knowledgeable enough to recommend a good book on the subject. I’m sure one of your excellent posters can provide that recommendation.

    This is important because corporations are in the middle and have a lot of power as society works out the issues centered on this post of yours. Citizens can, through their representatives, better define exactly what powers and responsibilities corporations exercise. More important, we need effective sanctions for companies who abuse their power. Companies that go bankrupt fall under the power of a federal judge. That judge has immense powers to rewrite just about every contract and policy of the company. Companies committing systematic felonies never fact the same sanctions. They should.

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  12. Albert,

    You seem awfully sure of something that I don’t think is quite as settled as you think. But as I said, I will look at the links, and the point is, at any rate, entirely tangential to the OP.

    Robin,

    If you mean that corporations are persons as a matter of law, of course, I’m aware of that. I really don’t think they ought to be, and that there are overwhelming ethical reasons for that not to be the case. But, as per the issue raised by Albert, these are side discussions that have little to do both with Stoicism and the specific question addressed in the column.

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  13. “You seem awfully sure of something that I don’t think is quite as settled as you think. But as I said, I will look at the links, and the point is, at any rate, entirely tangential to the OP.”

    I’m not sure what you’re saying I’m awfully sure about. I suspect you have a very different picture of human motives of elites in society and thus think I’m referring to conspirational motives or something.

    And I guess it’s a little tangential to the OP but not completely. It paints a different picture of laborer’s relationship to automation in human history and instructs us how to move forward. We never learn from history because we never see each other through the lens of another century and apply bizarre standards to ourselves.

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  14. But to be more specific on comments that directly addresses the OP, I guess we could all do similar things as you suggest but the answer for the far future on what to do about automation is something we have to seriously discuss collectively and not an easy answer. Varoufakis in the video I posted suggested a universal basic income. Bill Gates also recently suggested we should tax robots as if they were actually workers rather than simply functional equipment of a company. But such policies would never happen under the current society. In America, if Sanders is considered a crazy socialist, those ideas are way over to the moon.

    So it’s really nothing new, dedicated education and awareness. No easy answers I suppose.

    Or actually if I were to have a question, I’m a bit confused if there’s a difference between these kinds of normal considerations and the specific advice given by Stoicism.

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  15. Albert,

    Stoicism is a personal philosophy, not a set of policies for the betterment of society. I think that asking for the latter would be to miss the point. (Would anyone ask the same of, say, Buddhism?) That’s why this discussion we are having is tangential to the OP, as important as it is in the broader context.

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  16. “Stoicism is a personal philosophy, not a set of policies for the betterment of society….”

    I was aware, but the OP didn’t focus much on Stoicism’s specific relationship to that. If I made any tangential points, it’s because there wasn’t much to directly address. You mentioned using services that don’t exploit workers, writing to Congress, etc. But what in addition does Stoicism provide aside from what normal activists do?

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  17. Albert,

    I thought I was pretty clear in the OP about which specific parts of my advice come from Stoicism (most of them). I’m not sure I to explain it any better. Sorry for not being clear enough.

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  18. No you were clear in the beginning but towards the end, it drifted off to normal advice that I don’t think added much to the picture of what normal decent activists do already. Or maybe that’s just the nature of Stoic advice.

    I guess the clearest part about what Stoicism contributes was said here:

    “I believe the Stoic take on this is to put human beings first, the efficiency of production a distant second, and corporate profits a very very last third. This for a number of reasons.”

    I think that this is good advice that puts the consideration of individuals (workers at least) first. I think that’s the problem with a lot of attitudes towards social & political life is that there is a focus of care towards abstractions, often at the cost of individuals.

    But what’s considered in the OP is care towards individuals in the immediate gratification sense rather than long term investments in our communities. There is a problem with this, because many political conservatives actually don’t consider themselves less compassionate than liberals are. It’s because they conceptualize social organization in a different way than we do. That’s why you have bizarre contradictions in behavior such as Fundamentalist Christians who protest the Affordable Care Act but go out to work for charities.

    The question of how we go about doing this properly moving forward, and it requires much more than what’s suggested in the OP, and it sort of spirals down into discussions about policy and education. Unless you have other suggestions of interesting questions.

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  19. Albert, the OP is answering a specific question by a particular person, from a Stoic point of view. Yes, there are general implications, of course. My recommendations near the end are in synch with Stoic views, but Stoicism, as you know, isn’t the only approach that would suggest that sort of social activism. If conservatism doesn’t, fine, that’s too bad for conservatism. But I would expect a Buddhist to act similarly, and a true Christian (as opposed to the fake variety that has turned out to be so abundant in the US) to do the same.

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  20. Some tycoons of Silicon Valley share the same concern about the disruptive effects of the automation they’re developing, which is why they are also investing in universal basic income R&D (e.g. see here, notwithstanding the misleading headline, as poor cash recipients actually work a lot: they just finally have capital to invest in their futures).

    But I understand that morals & ethics drive policy, not the other way around, and a universal basic income is only one possible solution to this moral problem. Thanks Massimo for reinforcing the underlying point that “our job is that of trying to be as decent a human being as possible, concerned with the welfare of others and of society at large.”

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  21. Also if you consider Chomsky too excessive for claims like that, then you would probably consider most other Leftists as being likewise. He’s actually rather tame in comparison and careful to base his words on strong evidence, which is why in recent years, other Left activists have been denouncing him as too timid (for instance, he strongly advocated voting for HRC in swing state during the general election)

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  22. Albert,

    Really, you don’t need to convince me of how good Chomsky is. But I am skeptical of anyone who would think him too tame. I have always been a progressive, but sometimes those on the left are just as ideologically blind as those on the right. And the result can equally be dictatorship. (Just remember Sartre’s endorsement of Stalin, and he was by far not the only Western intellectual to fall for that, though thankfully he revised his views later on.)

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  23. Really, you don’t need to convince me of how good Chomsky is. But I am skeptical of anyone who would think him too tame. I have always been a progressive, but sometimes those on the left are just as ideologically blind as those on the right. And the result can equally be dictatorship. (Just remember Sartre’s endorsement of Stalin, and he was by far not the only Western intellectual to fall for that, though thankfully he revised his views later on.)

    Perhaps not trying to convince you about how good he is as much as the type of person he is from within the Left. I fully agree that the Left can be ideologically blind. Or rather, there has been a lot of infighting among Leftists over key questions in the past 2 years. Two being “should we support voting for HRC during the general election” the other being supporting free speech or the Black Bloc Protests. A lot of people on the Left tend to think they are the enlightened ones who aren’t duped by the corporate media & education system, but they’re still subject to social psychology & self deception as much as anyone else (even if I do lean towards their side in terms of the big picture)

    (On an another note: There is an important division among the more libertarian (anarchist/traditional Marxism) & authoritarian (Trotsky/Leninist) sides of the Left. Were Stalinists really Left? Some Leftists deny it, because it’s almost indistinguishable from fascism. The problem is that most people, even with an ideological bias, is squarely on the Left or Right on everything. Right-Libertarians for instance are extreme Right with regards to their ideas about Capitalism. But Leftists agree with Libertarians on Civil Liberties and American Foreign Policy for more than they do with most Liberal/Progressives. Are Libertarians Left or Right then?)

    But none of that is relevant to what I said before. There are plenty of people on the Left who think Chomsky is too tame, that’s just a factual matter. You don’t have to rely on my personal testimonies, you only need to use the internet to see what people were saying in the past year.

    https://www.google.com/#q=counterpunch+chomsky+john+halle&*

    There’s nothing about what I quoted from Chomsky above that’s unique to him or controversial among those who studied the Industrial Revolution or Corporate Capitalism carefully. The Business Elite in America are highly class conscious and engage in practices to control their workplace & maximize profit. That’s their institutional role, not because they engage in individual conspiracies (though there were instances of such things happening, like the Iran-Contra Deal or the Motorization of America)

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  24. The problem is that most people, even with an ideological bias, is not*** squarely on the Left or Right on everything.

    But Leftists agree with Libertarians on Civil Liberties and American Foreign Policy far*** more than they do with most Liberal/Progressives.

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  25. Albert: For that matter, we should be mindful of the “genetic fallacy” in which prejudice or suspicion against a source acts as the sole grounds by which to judge an idea, thereby overlooking its merits.

    Besides, Silicon Valley investors are only some of the fans of a universal basic income (UBI), which attracts people from across the political and economic spectrums.

    Lastly, the article I cited did not mention Bill Gates or his robot tax, whereas the article you cited concludes that “both a robot tax and a basic income could fit comfortably into a redistributive agenda.” I can agree to that, although I admit that I’m less interested in the precise revenue source for a UBI than I am its potential to liberate human beings from poverty and exploitation.

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  26. “Albert: For that matter, we should be mindful of the “genetic fallacy” in which prejudice or suspicion against a source acts as the sole grounds by which to judge an idea, thereby overlooking its merits.”

    I agree, apologies if I suggested that. But it should merit our attention to look further, if not judging the idea itself, is closer to what I meant.

    “I can agree to that, although I admit that I’m less interested in the precise revenue source for a UBI than I am its potential to liberate human beings from poverty and exploitation.”

    I am more interested in the latter is well. It’s just we have to be careful about the method if we are interested in the goal. Bill Gates & Mark Zuckerburg’s projects to fund schools in impoverished communities were pretty disastrous.

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  27. Of course, one could argue that this is nothinag new. The famous Luddite movement of the early 19th century railed against, and unsuccessfully opposed, the introduction of weaving machinery at the onset of the Industrial Revolution

    Even for the Luddites it was the soft-ware (the punch cards) more than the machinery that adversely affected their jobs.

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  28. For the record, corporations are persons ..

    My limited understanding is that the original purpose of ‘corp as perons’ was a ‘legal fiction, so they could make contracts and be sued thus allowing them to function incomers.

    If the commit crimes (killer Pinto) the people responsible should be prosecuted and go to jail. You can’t punish a fiction if you due the very nearly innocent stock holder are the people who suffer.

    Corporations are not people and before this absurd manipulation of ‘person’ they were only ‘person’ in a very narrow sense.

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