Who will still be famous in 10,000 years?

Sam Hammond, a loyal MR reader, asks me:

Who do you think will still be famous in 10,000 years? People from history or now. Shakespeare? Socrates? Hawking? 

This requires a theory of 10,000 years from now, but let's say we're a lot richer, not computer uploads (if so, I know the answer to the question), and not in a collapsed dystopia.  We still look like human beings and inhabit physical space.  If you wish, postulate that not all of those 10,000 years involved strongly positive economic growth.

In that case, I'll go with the major religious leaders (Jesus, Buddha, etc.), Einstein, Turing, Watson and Crick, Hitler, the major classical music composers, Adam Smith, and Neil Armstrong.  (Addendum: Oops!  I forgot Darwin and Euclid.)

My thinking is this.  The major religions last for a long time and leave a real mark on history.  Path-dependence is critical in that area. 

Otherwise, an individual, to stay famous, will have to securely symbolize an entire area, and an area "with legs" at that.  The theory of relativity still will be true and it may well become more important.  The computer and DNA will not be irrelevant.  Hitler will remain a stand-in symbol for pure evil; if he is topped we may not have a future at all.  Beethoven and Mozart still will be splendid, but Shakespeare and other wordsmiths will require translation and thus will fade somewhat.  The propensity to truck and barter will remain and Smith will keep his role as the symbol of economics.  Keynesian economics may someday be less true, as superior biofeedback, combined with markets in self-improvement, ushers in an era of flexible wages, while market-based expected nominal gdp targeting prevents a downward deflationary spiral.

The fame of those individuals will not perish, in part, because the more distant future will produce fewer lasting mega-famous people.  Achievement will be more decentralized and more connected to teams.  The dominance of Edison and Tesla, in their breakthroughs, will not be repeated.  There won't be a mega-Einstein eighty years from now, to make everyone forget the current Einstein, even if (especially if) science goes very well.


Einstein's theory of general relativity will probably be reinterpreted or overturned since there are many things concerning cosmology it can't explain. Newto. laws of motion and Maxwell's equation should still be widely used since they describe phenomena at the human scale.

Einstein is famous for three reasons. (i) He was the second best theoretical physicist ever. (ii) He lived in an age of celebrity and played up to that. (iii) He became an American citizen.

In 10ky, (i) may no longer be true, (ii) may be less important, and (iii) won't matter because the USA won't exist.

Shakespeare and other wordsmiths will require translation and thus will fade somewhat.

Gilgamesh is already around 5,000 years old and translation problems don't seem to prevent it from being known and having an impact. Several thousand years don't seem to be a problem for ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists either. I expect that Shakespeare will remain famous because human nature is much more constant than culture, and the stories of Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, etc will continue to resonate for that reason.

(And I would say Darwin is a much better bet for immortal renown that Watson & Crick).

bob, ten thousand years ago the world population was only about 5 million, less than one thousandth of what it is today. Those who lived had few possessions and their descendants had no need to preserve what was no longer functional. Museums are a relatively recent phenomenom, only a few hundred years old.

I imagine that quite a few artifacts from today will still be around in ten thousand years.

If we're including Euclid, we ought to include Plato, too. People like the inventors of things; for philosophy, that's Plato [I say Euro-centrically, etc.)

"We've pretty much only got some cave paintings and Stonehenge from 10,000 years ago. Why isn't there more?"

Because a lot got submerged when the sea level rose as the ice melted. (See last week's Telegraph - perhaps Saturday's - for a wonderful story of a scuba diver finding new cave paintings in the South of France.)

Beyond the fact that "famous" is a nebulous concept, I'll say the same people from 10,000 years ago who are famous now will be famous 10,000 years from now.

1. Interestingly, I can't seem to think of a woman who'd make the list. This will change. I'd be happy to be wrong on this, as far as contemporaries and predecessors go, and any one is free to point out my error or lack of knowledge.

2. We may see fewer scientists on the list, as science is now more of a collaborative effort.

3. Wordsmiths get constantly re-interpreted. I note that Shakespeare is popular in many contemporary languages.

Miley Cyrus



Justin Bieber

@RG: Archimedes.

@RG: Alexander.

in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people (i read that recently on the internet).

there won't be any famous people because we will live in a bunch of fractured, self-reinforcing cultural cells that don't communicate with each other and don't reach back to find a common set of facts or history.

we won't have "famous people" the way we do now.

I have my doubts about the classical composers - the nature of music has changed several times in history, and each time, the older music has been largely forgotten, regardless of huge levels of fame before that. It wouldn't surprise me to discover in a few centuries that - say - রবি শংকর (Ravi Shankar) is the most famous musician of the entire twentieth century, for example.

Scientists and engineers may develop lasting fame - if Vint Cerf is seen as the inventor of the internet or Tim Berners-Lee as the inventor of the WWW, and they are still in use as basic infrastructure, then they could end up with the fame of Gutenberg.

Democratic politicians never seem to achieve the lasting fame of great authoritarians; either as symbols of evil (Hitler, Pol Pot), or of power (Alexander, Caesar). Ghengiz Khan, of course, is both.

Even Lincoln is fading fast into historical memory outside the US - some of his memetic space is taken up by Mandela, of course. Churchill, outside the UK, the same.

If space becomes important again, then either Gagarin or Armstrong (possibly both, but I doubt it) will be the symbol as either the first man in space, or the first to step on another world.

The first person born in space, if she lives her whole life there, and if a long time passes before there is a second (the slow speed of our exploration of space makes that seem quite possible) will be hugely famous for centuries after her death.

I'd still be inclined to go for Gagarin over Armstrong - but it depends on whether we have lots of people living in space, or lots of people living on other worlds (planets and satellites) and space is just a place you travel through. If we have permanent space habitats, then Gagarin, if we have colonies on the moon and Mars, Armstrong.

Accepting as given that civilization lasts 10,000 years with some continuity (big assumption), here's my list: Neil Armstrong; Shakespeare; Einstein; Darwin; Newton; possibly Turing.

Did you omit Newton on purpose?

Good call putting Armstrong on the list - he didn't leap to mind for me, but as soon as I saw his name, it was obvious. Other candidates: Yuri Gargarin, whoever steps on Mars first, the first person to live out their life in space or on another planet.

To those complaining that people like Turing and Gargarin are barely known today: for many of these people, their fame grows over time, not shrinks.

I doubt any musicians will be on the list - music is too ephemeral. If they are, I'd guess Bach.

I feel sorry for Columbus, Vespucci, Cook, et al.

Umm...Lee Unkrich anyone? (Oscar winner for Toy Story 3)

The advent of TV and film may preserve some recent figures much better than those who came just 100 years before. Thus JFK may be remembered for exactly the same reasons that Cleopatra is now much more famous than earlier Egyptian leaders who were far more important in a political sense. (I.e., both had famous romantic affairs and tragic deaths.)

I doubt whether computers will exist in 10,000 years. Or perhaps I should say computer power will be embedded in ordinary objects, and thus there won't be things that people think of as "computers."

10,000 years is way too long for this exercise. After about 500 years everything is a total blur. It's like predicting whether it will rain or snow in a Tuesday 100 years out. Can't be done.

Don't forget Robin Hanson. Something incredibly important will happen, and he'll have been the first to suggest it might happen.

Scott: Just because stand alone computers are not around doesn't negate the importance of computation, which is what Turing's work laid the foundations for. I'm certain that in ten thousand years computational theory will be centrally important to society, simply because the group which has the best grasp of optimizing computation will have great advantage over its contemporaries. This because most societal transactions will be explicitly algorithmic by that time. That's the trend I'm seeing, anyway.

the guy who played Brock on General Hospital in the 80s

Famous People alive today or who lived prior to today will have their actual existence questioned in 10000 years. Can anyone today name a famous person that was alive 10000 years ago? The only ones I know of are from the bible or other religious texts or creation myths. The methods of proving existence today (video recordings ie) will seem as easily fabricated to a person 10000 years from now as cave drawings, word of mouth, and ancient scrolls seem today. We will have zero connection to future people. They will view even our most famous as having no bearing whatsoever on cultural history, only on evolutionary history… I think

"I have my doubts about the classical composers - the nature of music has changed several times in history, and each time, the older music has been largely forgotten, regardless of huge levels of fame before that."

That ended around the 19th century. We are now living in a time when symphonic orchestras, academic departments, and fans of classical music throughout the world overwhelmingly favour those composers who lived centuries ago. And this will continue for the foreseeable future, as it becomes exponentially more and more difficult to compose music that is both innovative and tonal.

John 10:02;23 am. Agreed. You can even ask: what person of popular culture in the US 300 years ago (other than politicians) can you name today.

I think the more intersting question might be: focusing on the world and not just our country 10000 years from now, given the inevitatable rise of other economies around the world, will any person you name 10000 years from now be an American.

It is more likely that big population countries, which will have grown their economies larger, will have a greater influence on the selection of names and the evolution of culture.

Notice some of the selection bias in the names above: how many names are Western culture names, how many names are American, how many answers are "I dunno know". I'm in the "I dunno know" camp.

And, if you deep blue think about this, the most famous name of an ancestor might be children of the winner of Jeopardy: Watson.

We will probably still measure energy in Watts, and places will still be called Washington so their names will be remembered even if people forget why.

Energy in Joules, power in Watts.

I'm not so sure why people think 10,000 years is so unimaginable. This was written almost 2,000 years ago:

Does his life feel unintelligibly foreign to you? Do you think that 10,000 years from now, people will no longer enjoy spending their leisure time in a house by the beach? But 10,000 years is only 5 times that. No more than the difference between a trip of 2 miles vs 10.

Narmer/Menes is usually cited as the earliest named and dated person in the Western/Near Eastern historical tradition - c.3100 BCE. Earlier Pharoahs of Upper or Lower Egypt are not really named - "Scorpion" had a scorpion as his personal symbol, but that was more like a coat of arms than a name.

The religious figures of Jesus Christ and Mohammed are the most likely to be widely known 10,000 years from now. One could certainly put Newton amongst the scientists whose fame will probably extend that long, as well as Einstein. Of the people alive today, who can say? The only person alive today I can think of that might leave an lasting imprint on history is Bill Gates, and I doubt even that. The problem is that truly great achievements of today are often largely cooperative endeavors for which no single person garners much credit.

When Tesla is rediscovered world wide, he will become very famous.

Famous means the average man on the street will know the name. There are going to be very few historical figures around 12,000 CE that the average man will know unless they have become shorthand for something or still retain emotional importance for society. Most important - it has to be someone the historians of the era want to include in the 9 month long "World History" class for high schoolers at the time. I am assuming that in 10,000 years there will be enough world unity that everyone is exposed to the significant achievements of the great civilizations.

The founders of great religions will be remembered.

The prime lawgivers/moral teachers of the great civilizations will be remembered: Socrates, Hammurabi, Confucious. Who else counts? Thomas Jefferson? Gandhi?

The great leaders who founded the dominant empires of the great cultures will be remembered - Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Qin Shi Huangdi, Asoka. Someone better acquainted with Muslim culture will tell us who among the early Caliphates count. If the USA continues for some time (or American successor state), George Washington will be added to that list.

The great tyrants will be remembered. People always want villains. Hitler will be remembered for the same reason Genghis Khan is remembered. I don't know if any other figure from WWII will be remembered unfortunately. What other depraved person will be remembered? Caligula?

The great war leaders will be remembered. Alexander the Great. Napoleon. Anyone who kicked a lot of butt for several decades. If Genghis Khan isn't counted among the tyrants, he'll be counted here.

Columbus will likely be remembered. History changed because of him. Not many other explorers though. Maybe Magellan?

Neil Armstrong is likely to become the embodiment of space exploration. Being the first human being on the moon has an impact that none of the other space "firsts" have.

Any cultural person who can sum up the pinnacle achievement of their art. Shakespeare. Not sure if Beethoven or Mozart will win out for classical music. Who will it be for painting or movies?

Whoever will qualify for "world's smartest person". It is Einstein right now, but he could easily be replaced in 10,0000 years.

The famous people may be those who live longest on a terminology level. This is why Euclid for Geometry makes sense. The same would go for Turing as all computers can be reduced to a Turing machine and at a base level the math he developed will always be applicable in evaluating how IT develops. Most people will probably know Pythagoras.

History will always be a subject for the most part so another strong bet would be the earliest recorded people who developed any specific subject. The importance of that person will be defined by the ubiquity of his thought. So there are few people to compete with Plato and Homer because nobody can really be first again. Whether newer subjects will be thought of in the same way is an open question... I would suggest that from each major field someone will be famous and possible include certain sub-aspects of areas of study that were invented by people. Newton for Calculus (will Liebenz be more prominent?); Mendelev for the periodic table; Adam Smith for economics?; Galileo for Astronomy;...

In the end the most lasting names will definitely be those that have given their name to a unit of measurement, whether people know who they were is an open question. In this vein my money would be on Plank as the descriptor of all the fundamental units of measurement.

I was waiting for the Wlyd Stallions comment. Given how impossible it is to predict the future, and how relatively young humanity is, the rationale for elevating some of the other "obvious" choices just isn't persuasive.

Adam and Eve have a good chance of retaining their fame (do you have to have existed to appear on this list?)

As for women, Cleopatra has done well so far. So has the Virgin Mary - she has a significant cult following, and should last as long as Jesus lasts (could she even out-last him!!).

If we assume that religious leaders last, then might Joseph Smith Jr be the most recent religious figure to survive down through the ages? Mormonism has built a significant following, it's proactive at recruiting, and its followers seem to be relatively stable and prosperous compared to other religions. Their latent philosophy on polygamy may work to their advantage in increasing their relative numbers if there's ever a war which wipes out vast numbers of menfolk...

Of contemporary individuals, if I had to pick one, it would be Neil Armstrong. Whether humanity creates an inter-galactic civilisation, or declines back down to medieval levels, I'd wager that our descendants will remember the first person to walk on the moon. He even has a heroic name (Arm Strong), which might help with surviving translation and distortion across the milennia.

Maybe this guy: Bill Sims. He just claimed" "The Cambridge, Mass.-based company says it can manipulate the organism to produce the renewable fuels on demand at unprecedented rates, and can do it in facilities large and small at costs comparable to the cheapest fossil fuels."

Ten thousand years is far too distant to even begin to contemplate what society will be like.

I don't think you can use our current memory of 10,000 years in the past as a benchmark for what we might remember 10,000 years in the future - for much of that 10,000 years, the world was somewhat static and didn't change much. The occasional transformational leader or great thinker therefore stood out and survived. In addition, the great monuments were made of stone and built to last thousands of years. Historical documents were etched in tablets or inscribed into the sides of buildings.

Today, change is rapid. Whole empires rise and fall in the space of a century. Our weapons and technology enable us to obliterate just about anything we want - the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan stood for fifteen centuries before being blasted to bits by fanatics with long-range explosive projectiles.

Also don't forget that history is written by the winners. We don't know who the future 'winners' will be, or what efforts they will go to in an attempt to re-write or destroy history as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

How much history was lost in the great fire in Alexandria? What would our view of history be like had that building survived?

I can imagine thousands of years of civilizations rising and falling - some peaceful and democratic, some despotic. I think it's a certainty that somewhere along the way nuclear weapons will be used on a medium to large scale. It's entirely possible that we could head into another dark age some time in the distant future, only to re-emerge after hundreds or thousands of years.

Given all that, it seems to me that the only people and events that we have any reasonable chance of saying might still be known are those that participated in fundamental inflection points in the development of humanity.

So... The leaders of the first great empires, perhaps one or two of the greatest scientists, Neil Armstrong representing man's first step on another world - although his name could be lost to history, the event itself is likely to survive our collective memory.

Perhaps the the major religious leaders we remember today will survive, although that's far from certain as it's entirely possible that a future religion could seek to wipe out memories of other, competing religions.

But this is all pure guesswork. Given the acceleration of change we've seen in the past 500 years, you might as well use a million years instead of 10,000. The question would be a lot more interesting if you chose 500 or 1,000 years, but even then the rapid change in technology makes just about any prediction iffy.

Uh... I don't think Tyler thought about this a lot before posting.
How do we measure famous right now across the world? (Seriously).

Enough said.

(The comment about DNA is bizarre; all multicellular life depends on DNA. Even if we are "computer uploads", to understand biology, it will be necessary to understand DNA - even if just historical. The evolution of life which led to humans depends on DNA...)

I'm surprised no one mentioned anything about movies or pop music. This is why no one can predict anything -- they focus too much on what worked in the past, not realizing that things change.

As far as themes, structure, plot, etc., are concerned -- yes, timeless and universal is good.

But as for the medium they're set down in, there are virtually no repeats.

Homer and Virgil more or less finished the epic -- no biggies of their stature forever after.

The major religious texts all were written down within not too many centuries of each other. Nothing huge before them nor since then.

The live-action play was there in ancient Greece and Rome, but really the only one that's survived popularly is Oedipus Rex. The play reached its peak during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Shakespeare.

The novel was a mostly 19th C. medium. Dostoyevsky will survive.

When we get to the 20th C., the brand new narrative medium is movies. Regardless of which ones you think will survive, people will always be fascinated by this unique way of telling stories, no less than by the epic, the religious text, the play, or the novel.

I agree that "famous" means "x% of people on the street know your name as it links to you."

Sorry, Cincinatti fails because no one knows the link. Likewise Turing. There are a large number of mathematicians that are going to retain their fame--only among mathematicians. Turing's only hope is if we get into a cultural debate over artificial intelligence that lasts a LONG time AND his throw-away test plays a central roll. Don't hold your breath.

In the 20th century, Einstein easily has the best shot because, while everyone on the street misinterprets relativity, they remember it & connect it to him.

Hitler's infamy is really connected to his demonstration that eugenics is a cultural dead end and the fact that he set out to eliminate an entire people. Mao killed 100M. Pol Pot wiped out 1/3 of his countrymen.

Genghis Khan is probably better remembered because he was in on the founding of the world's largest and longest-lived empire than how he did it. The fact that he had lots of enemies has a lot to do with why his tactics are decried rather than praised. I expect that he will continue to be remembered, however.

For evil, Vlad the Impaler may be one of your best shots. Distorted? Yes. But the related vampire meme strikes deeply into our psychology.

So... As long as there is high school geometry, Euclid & Pythagoras get free rides. I expect that Homer will hang on, although Achilles & his heel will probably benefit the most. Plato & Aristotle have already survived several major cultural transitions as well. Galilee & Newton. Perhaps Gutenberg.

If the future is free, then Lincoln, Jefferson, and Wilberforce have a shot. A shot. Washington, perhaps. The name yes, but I don't know about the man.

Armstrong is a flash. Who is the other guy?

Yes, I'm assuming that Western culture will survive and dominate. It is not an accident of history that it has already survived the Mongols and beaten back the European barbarians and Muslims. There is no library at Alexander to destroy any more. The Great Doubting that has become fashionable will pass.

Julius Caesar
da Vinci

Surely the USA will be remembered long after it ceases to exist. I would think Washington and Jefferson would be emblematic of the country; maybe Lincoln also.

I agree we are probably underrating the possibility that filmmakers and movie stars from the 20th century will be remembered, but it is hard to guess which. Perhaps Hitchcock, Kubrick and Coppola will be remembered. They may ultimately fall into the same category as Mozart and Beethoven, in the sense that styles in future movies may never improve greatly on their artistic innovations. Also, there is reason to believe the 20th century will be among the more famous of centuries, and that movies of the 20th century will be among the most interesting documents left behind. Going back to the Hitler question: if he is remembered it will likely be due to the coincidence of movies. Movies will also likely be the main reason classical composers are remembered in the future. One can easily picture the death of performed classical music, but it is harder to picture the death of classical music used in movie soundtracks.

As for the suggestion Michael Jackson and Madonna will be remembered: I'm going to short that one.

After thinking about it, there were only 2 men who were definitely, consciously aiming for 10,000 year fame in the 20th century ...and both have a real shot at winning it for all the worst reasons: Hitler and L Ron Hubbard.

Much like today, as time continues on it will be the inventions themselves that garner attention over specific individuals. The Internet may get honorable mention in 10,000 years but folks like Leonard Kleinrock may be largely forgotten. Tyler's remark on the lack of future Einsteins implies society is just full of Einsteins today, none of which stand out from the rest. And as technology becomes more and more advanced future innovations will simply be a collaboration of teams of Einsteins, and the individuals themselves will be overshadowed.

As far as political figures are concerned, history is just a continuous repeat of itself, and again individuals who accomplish great (or horrendous) things are overshadowed by many others who've done the same.

I'm unclear about whether Dieter's comment, claiming that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler wasn't, was supposed to be a joke. If not, history teaching in Austria must be even worse than it is here.

"Humanity" will be unrecognizable in 10,000 years because of a combination of genetic engineering and "singularity" with machines. The concept of needing to understand fine details of the past will be silly (we don't care that amoeba 1232463274 ate amoeba 2767638746). I suspect this will be the case in as little as 500 years.

Most of these guys are unknown by the general public today, never mind the general public of 10,000 years from now. To get some sort of an idea of general public knowledge, I asked my 5th grader if he knew any of these names. Many of the names he didn't recognise, but a few he did:

Buddha - "You mean that fat Chinese guy?" (Perception is everything)
Einstein - "The mad scientist with the hair"
Watson and Crick - "The steam engine guy?" (which is pretty good for a wrong answer)
Neil Armstrong
Genghis Khan "The guy who killed lots of people and burned their villages"
Julius Caesar
Alexander the Great
Homer "The poet who wrote all about Greek mythology"
Socrates "The Greek guy who killed himself, right?"
Churchill - "The boss of the English during WWII"

Names he missed:
Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Pol Pot, Stalin, Edison, Tesla, Turing, and Adam Smith - "Do you know how many people out there that are named Smith ??!!?"

Of course, if Western civilization doesn't survive 10,000 years then people in the future will have to depend on our material remains. When you consider the effect 10,000 years can have on a landfill that means the only thing left will be styrofoam containers with Ronald McDonald and the Hamburgler will be all that is left of us.

In the far far future you'd expect people might be interested in the foundations of nonviolence, democracy, human rights, etc. in addition to the scientists and religious leaders.

re: translation
Right now I possess a phone with which I can point the camera at Spanish text and the monitor shows the same image with English text replacing the Spanish. In 5 years we'll have every major language and high quality translations. In 25 years high quality literary translations. So I really can't imagine translation being any issue in 10k years. Some literature will have advantages of course: prose translates better then poetry, shorter works are more approachable given the amount to material and the scale of time we're talking about and drama can be staged with whatever VR or holodeck tech is being used. So Ibsen and Chekhov might be in good shape.

Finally there's the idea that pretty much everyone famous now will be famous. Computer uploads or not what's possible with genetics will shape people into libraries. They'll live much much longer, digest information much much faster and retain it nearly perfectly.

Einstein's primitive theory of relativity is nothing to Our Post-Brane Gravetic-Stringed Quantum General Matrix Theory! Professor Zharg of Proximia Centauri is the one we honour today, for enabling Vodaphone to deliver messages that arrive before they are sent.

Seriously, Newton only lasted 5 centuries before being superceded. I'd suggest probability of being remembered over that span of time is simply directly proportional to current longetivity. Hey, and did we miss Darwin off the list?

Definitely Albert Einstein. I suspect that his Relativity Theory will play an even bigger role into the future, when we will really travel through space by bending time. :)

A thousand years from now:

Bach and Da Vinci will be remembered,

Mozart and Pollock will be forgotten,

And people won't even know what 'rap' ever was.

Within 100 years eugenics will probably be considered perfectly acceptable, perhaps the only "rational" response to the resource constraints faced by the human race. In that environment Hitler's "evil" may lose some of its potency, although hopefully people will recognize that Hitler understanding of "eugenics" was on par with an astrologers understanding of astrophysics. However Hitler is "iconic", a feature which helps one's fame last.

Having some sort of iconic image is important - Hitler, Einstein, Napoleon, Marilyn Monroe all have it. Watson and Crick and Turing do not. For that reason neither Armstrong or Gargarin will ever be more than faceless names in history books (or digital files or whatever). Most people would not recognize Armstrong dressed in civilian clothes or be able to tell you a single fact about his life other than the moon landing.

Good point about units of si measurement named for people.

If the Singularity comes... in 10,000 years it may be the same people that are alive today and therefore will be able to remember the famous and historical figures of our time..

Because European population is growing much less than non Western population, my guess is that we will not remember as much philosophers, writers, and artists that came from Europe. This will not be so much the case with Western scientists, since science has a much more universal outlook than art or culture. It could be that some Chinese or Indian writer/artist/philosophers that are no so famous in the West today will be far more remembered in the future than now.

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