Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Quality of Life"

**1/2

Air date: 11/16/1992
Written by Naren Shankar
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Enterprise observes an experimental mining operation overseen by the ambitious Dr. Farallon (Ellen Bry) to decide whether her technological methods can be deployed in more widespread use in the Federation. Farallon has in her employ some advanced robotic tools she created, called "exocomps." When one of them inexplicably malfunctions, Data takes it back to the Enterprise for further diagnostic. He slowly comes to the conclusion that the exocomps may be alive.

Just what exactly is "alive"? Data has a conversation with Crusher that asks this very question, and the discussion ends probably the only way it can — inconclusively. As the episode notes, if you boil down the criteria of what living things generally do — exist, consume, attempt to survive, multiply — you could make the case that fire is "alive." But perhaps there must be something beyond that — a spark that transcends the qualifying definitions. I think ultimately what this episode is talking about is not simply life, but intelligence. The exocomps are learning machines rather than simple tools. But does being a somewhat more advanced robotic intelligence make them alive?

I'm of two minds on "The Quality of Life." On the one hand, it is in principle a pure example of the "seek out new life" mantra of the Star Trek ethos, and it is surely an episode whose underlying issues are fodder for much discussion and debate about the nature of life (artificial or otherwise) and our responsibilities to it.

On the other hand, by taking the argument as far as it does, the story threatens to collapse under its own moral conviction. A crisis arises, involving Picard and Geordi being trapped near deadly radiation, and the only way to save them is to send in the exocomps to make the necessary repairs, which will unfortunately result in their destruction. Data becomes the exocomps' advocate and locks out the transporter controls, barring the solution because he believes the rights of these possible life forms are not being considered. In effect, Data is willing to sacrifice the life of the captain and chief engineer on the hunch that these machines might comprise a rudimentary intelligence that may or may not rise to the level of sentience. That to me is taking things a shade too far into oh-come-on territory. (From a chain of command standpoint, Data's actions are probably worthy of a court-martial.)

The unintentional point the story almost seems to make is that Data is looking at this issue from such a coldly detached logical point of view (albeit from a uniquely personal perspective) that he doesn't even consider that the value of life is not simply about whether it exists, but what humans assign to it emotionally, in the form of relationships, attachments, and feelings. To put it another way: If you accidentally kill a deer with your car, you're not going to feel nearly as bad as if you kill a person, even one whom you don't know. Why? Because certain life is simply more important because of the value we assign to it. Now, where do you draw the line? Good question. But Data and "The Quality of Life" are not interested in drawing lines or designating the order of value. They want to treat all life equally, which means the exocomps have every right to live as Picard and Geordi, even if they may only be marginally sentient. For some reason, that to me seems slightly ridiculous. Maybe I'm just prejudiced against little robotic tools when instead I should be leading the charge in freeing Siri from her prison of iPhone servitude.

I also felt that Dr. Farallon was a little too obviously written as the story's (mild) villain, who at first comes across as annoying and obstinate, but learns the story's lesson by the end. (Ah, TNG's spirit of mutually arrived understanding.) Ultimately, a compromise solution is reached. That solution allows the story to walk away without compromising its ethics, while also saving Picard and Geordi. It's an interesting resolution to an interesting dilemma, but it doesn't force anyone to address the question of the difference between the value of life and the quality of it. That "The Quality of Life" is good at inspiring these sort of questions is to its credit, but consider me on the fence as to its effectiveness as drama.

Previous episode: A Fistful of Datas
Next episode: Chain of Command, Part I

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27 comments on this review

Latex Zebra - Sun, Jun 10, 2012 - 4:20am (USA Central)
Utterly forgetable episode. This concept is overused in Sci Fi, intelligent machines that is.
It gets used again later on with Emmergence. Just a season later.
Nick P. - Tue, Jun 12, 2012 - 8:30am (USA Central)
Should have been a season 7 episode, TERRIBLE, and BORING.
Tim - Sat, Jun 23, 2012 - 9:25am (USA Central)
Awful episode - sure, they exhibit signs of life, but it is like a domestic animal - designed/bred to work by humans. Ridiculous. But then I do see things from a 'human life is precious' point of view..
William B - Sun, Jun 24, 2012 - 2:53pm (USA Central)
To be fair to Data's argument, from his POV the Exocomps are not just "life" but also sentient, and sentience in Trekdom is always presented as being the key distinction between precious and non-precious forms of life. Additionally, the difference between killing a deer and the Exocomps is that the Exocomps are unique; I forget exactly whether there are any other Exocomps, but I think these might be the only ones, and thus not just individuals but a whole species would be wiped out.

In addition, to expect Data to treat human life as more precious than mechanical sentient life is a little unfair to him. I agree that the episode doesn't present the opposing case to Data's strongly enough, though.
chrissam42 - Mon, Jul 2, 2012 - 11:30pm (USA Central)
Wow, seeing a Siri/iPhone reference in a TNG review caused some serious cognitive dissonance!
Rosario - Thu, Nov 8, 2012 - 3:43pm (USA Central)
"Maybe I'm just prejudiced against little robotic tools when instead I should be leading the charge in freeing Siri from her prison of iPhone servitude."

The review was more entertaining than the episode. Thank you.
Sasukespecialman - Sat, Nov 17, 2012 - 9:01pm (USA Central)
I agree with William B that, while the argument could have been laid out more clearly and is not always convincing, Data's position is less coldly-detached and more uniquely subjectivist towards machines and the potential of recognition. I think his quick dialogue with Picard at the end states the point pretty well: he felt these machines needed a form of representation that they would never get from those viewing them merely as tools. He was trying to live up to the standards Picard set in Measure of a Man.

I am not sure I find his argument for sentience convincing, since it is based on: a) flexible problem solving ability; and b) self-preservation. The latter is fine, but the robots do not ever seem to do anything beyond their primary function in the episode, so it is hard to disagree with Jammer's claim that they are mostly presented as very advanced tools.

Still, it raises an interesting point left untouched in Measure of a Man: how much of our willingness to accept Data is based on his walking and talking like a man, and how much on legitimate respect for his sentience? I think the episode is flawed, but has some interesting new insights for this ongoing TNG debate.
dead heat - Sat, Dec 22, 2012 - 5:43am (USA Central)
This is one I HATED when I was a kid. I was bored to tears by it. But when I watched it later in life, I enjoyed it a lot more.
Leif - Wed, Mar 6, 2013 - 10:45pm (USA Central)
Did anyone else but me think this was an outstanding episode??
Dan - Sat, Apr 27, 2013 - 4:30pm (USA Central)
I thought this was an excellent episode. A good followup to the previous episodes about sentience like "Measure of a Man". Especially liked the part at the end when Picard tells Data it was the most human thing he'd ever done.

Agreed with dead heat, its one of those episodes you don't appreciate until you're older.
T'Paul - Sun, Jun 16, 2013 - 2:59pm (USA Central)
To me this was an issue that had already been done several times in TNG.

Plus the alien scientist went through some pretty wild mood swings from complete bitch to enlightened.

The exocomps also seemed to have some pretty magical abilities too... they can reprogram transporters, replicate tools, predict the future.

OK, but not great in my opinion, I agree with the rating
J - Mon, Jul 1, 2013 - 7:27pm (USA Central)
I actually enjoyed this episode. I agree that watching it now as an adult gave me a different perspective -- as a kid i remember it being mediocre. I think it was poorly executed, but it's been a while since Data has made any progress in his quest for humanity, and I appreciated this development. I found Data taking a stand for artificial life, even without knowing if it was alive, to be a rather poignant development.
Jonas - Sun, Aug 4, 2013 - 6:09pm (USA Central)
The best thing to come out of this episode is the actors' discussion of beards in the teaser. Quality.
William B - Tue, Aug 27, 2013 - 11:59am (USA Central)
I talked about this a little back when the review was posted, but have now rewatched it.

I don't know whether this is a great episode, but I do think it's a great Data episode. It's actually a lot like Odo's "Chimera," and while I don't think it's an episode on the same level of quality, I think that it covers some similar themes and comes to different and also interesting conclusions. I don't think that Data, or anyone else, adequately make the case for the Exocomps as not only alive but actually sentient, a distinction that the episode and the characters should make much more of. To the credit of Beverly and the episode, she makes the point that the Exocomps may be a sentient life form at the staff meeting. At its core, though, the episode rests on Data making a subjective -- not emotional, but deeply subjective and personal -- decision about the possibility of mechanical life forms. He lays this out to Beverly about his own uniqueness, and I think that also suggests much of the loneliness of Data's life. The only other person like him is Lore, who is evil and must, ultimately, be destroyed. He is alone, and while he aspires to be human, he knows that he never can be; and while others are close to him, especially Geordi and Picard, he also knows that they can never entirely understand him. Data largely looks and acts human, but the appearance of humanity is all hardware, and his acting human is at least partly because that's what he has always wanted to be.

Perhaps as a result of this, Data has a degree of certainty and even passion when arguing the case for the Exocomps than we usually see. When it comes to scientific discoveries, Data is certain of his conclusions but not closely invested; when it comes to emotional-based human matters and friendship, even when he does "know" what he "feels," he seems hesitant, halting, trying to think of how he should behave, using humans as guides. (For a fairly recent example, take his problems building up Geordi's funeral in "The Next Phase.") In this episode, he seeks Beverly's advice in order to gain some of the language to express his intuitions, but his immediate belief that the Exocomps are alive (and the word "belief" is used and underlined) comes down to a recognition that they are like him, and he understands how that works. His kinship is natural and unaffected because they are built up the same way he is; if they have come to life, intelligence and sentience, at least to some degree, then it is by a (physical) process much more similar to Data's coming by these than by the human's. When I watch Data in this episode -- his intense stare as he looks down the Jeffries tube as the Exocomp is tested and each second makes it less and less likely that Data is correct -- I see not just a belief, but even a hope. If the Exocomps are alive and are valuable creatures in their own right, then it's possible that Data can have value in a way that is not just bestowed by humans because he looks and acts like them.

(I'm reminded, too, of the gentle sadness of the conversation with Geordi in "Conundrum," in which Data speculated that perhaps he was from a race of artificial life forms, and eventually mentioned the possibility that he was unique. Data wants to belong to a larger community, and wants to believe himself to be something other than an aberration that cannot be replicated, and I think that this might contribute a lot more to his quest to be human than Data or anyone else is aware.)

So, on the Exocomps: they have a sense of self-preservation which means actually understanding that they can be transformed by the orders they are given; they are able to harm themselves and repair themselves in order to control their lives; they have sophisticated problem-solving. The way they genuinely replicate new pathways for learning is the closest Data has seen to his own neural net. And their intelligence in terms of problem-solving actually is really high. It's not necessarily that they have "superior intelligence" as Farallon suggests (and Data denies), but they are able to figure out a new solution to a problem based on experience that humans don't have; their intelligence in engineering problem-solving abilities are on the order of magnitude as humans', even if not necessarily equal to theirs. At the episode's end, they come up with an original solution and one of them is willing to sacrifice itself. Assuming that their self-preservation and capacity for creative problem solving positions them as alive, they still might be (as others have suggested above) more akin to domestic animals. Dogs will sacrifice themselves for their owners, but it's still rare to find ones that will sacrifice themselves for strangers. But I think the problem is that no one besides Data (and Beverly to a degree) is even asking these questions about the Exocomps (though Picard and is very sympathetic), and there has been no test developed to determine whether the Exocomps are sufficiently sentient to get the level of rights that they not be thrown into the fray to be destroyed to save humans. For Data, the possibility really exists that these are sentient, and he knows that they have self-preservation. More to the point, they have not determined a way to communicate with Exocomps in a way that if they were sentient, they could express it, and nor have there been the hundreds of years that humans have had to try to discover sentience in their domestic animals. Data refers to the Exocomps as potential progenitors of him, but I think that he is slightly hedging his argument once it seems that the Exocomps have failed the self-preservation test. In reality, does Data *know* that the Exocomps are less sophisticated and less deserving of existence than him? And if so, how can he give up their lives. Again, this is why I disagree with Jammer's argument that Data is advocating for the Exocomps from a coldly rational standpoint, and that this is a flaw in the episode. Data believes in the Exocomps' rights because they are his own rights.

That Data (and Beverly) are the only real advocates for the Exocomps makes sense too and hints at the extent to which Data’s acquisition of rights is a slow process. Everyone believes that Data is sentient, and acknowledges this, but much of it is that Data looks human, can communicate clearly, and because his human designer wanted to build a sentient android. Dr. Farallon is not another Bruce Maddox, or another Admiral from “The Offspring”: she is portrayed sympathetically, and reacts to the Exocomps with the same skepticism that much of the audience does. Time is spent on her, and on the reasons why she needs the Exocomps as badly as she does, in order to make it clear that there is a great loss to admitting in the possibility of the Exocomps being anything other than tools for labour. I think that she is written with nuance, given her own scenes to give us her values and spirited intelligence.

That Data makes the big decision, then, to protect the "rights" of the Exocomps over the lives of his best friend and his mentor, is huge, but perfectly in character and believable to me. This episode follows up from "The Measure of a Man" in that Data plays the Picard role (even mentioned explicitly) as advocate for the Exocomps, in a world in which their rights may be stripped away and a new precedent set. It's also remarkable in that it builds on "The Most Toys" and other episodes similar, with Data's extremely strong, and perhaps even rigid, moral beliefs. He will not sacrifice a life or allow a (potentially sentient) life to be destroyed, if he can avoid it. Partially, that trumps his closeness with his friends, but it is complicated too because he is also acting to protect machines with whom he shares a greater affinity than his closest human friends. The eventual compromise he comes to with Riker -- allow the Exocomps to make their own choice -- helps demonstrate that of course it’s not that Data wants his friends to die or is indifferent to them. Data demonstrates here an incredible commitment and integrity that is almost (and perhaps *is*) inhuman in this scene, willing to let his friends die, his career be over, to face a court-martial. This reminds me of the way “Clues” works, and while the Data/Riker scene here does not have the raw power of the central Data/Picard scene in “Clues,” the idea is probably even stronger. Data will give up absolutely everything to prevent the possibility of the Exocomps being sentient beings sent on a suicide mission without any ability to consent.

What I would have liked, I think, is for a real examination of to what extent Data's actions here are selfish, even if they are also in fact heroic: his willingness to believe in the Exocomps' intelligence, and his placing the value he places on them, is because he himself is an artificial being, unique, as he has described. I think that the episode’s weakness is that it doesn’t make enough of the difference between sentient life and all life, and that Data does not as well. I emphasize the possibility that the Exocomps are sentient in order to justify and explain Data’s actions, and Beverly has indicated that it is a possibility on the table; but Data’s argument sometimes veer too much toward the idea that all life is equal, that even if the Exocomps are to Data as a virus is to Dr. Farallon they should be protected. Obviously they shouldn’t be, or if they do it opens up a whole nexus of other issues that are not and cannot be discussed adequately here. I think, too, that a little more variation in the reactions of other crew members to Data’s decision, at the episode’s end, would be helpful. Picard is entirely supportive of Data, but does Geordi feel betrayed? Is Riker still pissed off that Data was willing to risk the captain’s life? This episode points to Data's alien-ness a great deal, and shows us in a new way something truly mysterious and a little frightening about him, all while he is behaving in a manner that is entirely ethical about him. I wish that the episode had a greater dramatic engine and pushed further on this point, but it went there.

At the end, the Exocomps save the day in their own way, and two of the Exocomps return; one sacrifices itself. The Exocomp's sacrifice connects it with Picard and Geordi's willingness to risk their lives to find and save Dr. Farallon's man, and Data's willingness to sacrifice himself for Picard and Geordi, and helps communicate that they are alive, as well as, in true TNG spirit, the idea that life is not actually a zero-sum game. Granting the Exocomps the freedom of choice and treating them as living, intelligent beings means that they cannot be used as slave labour, but it also means that they can bring something to the table that they would not otherwise. Still, it is a little pat and cheesy, which should bother me more maybe but, gosh, I love TNG, in the end, and this is part of the reason why.

I know I've gone on a lot, but I do think this is one of the most essential Data episodes and is the sensible follow-up to "The Measure of a Man" (and "The Offspring") for Data and for the show's take on artificial life forms. It has significant weaknesses, but I do love it, so, let's say a very marginal 3.5 stars.
William B - Tue, Aug 27, 2013 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
Just want to add: while the episode does mostly come down in support of Data's take on the Exocomps, there is no full realization; Farallon admits Data has given her "a lot" to think about, but otherwise the resolution is not complete. A final verdict on the Exocomps is not really given. And one thing I forgot to mention but should here: the fact that the Exocomps didn't fail the self-preservation test *does not* guarantee that they passed it; they only *didn't fail*, and the only way to check for sure whether they would preserve themselves is to *actually* put them in danger and see how they react. As a result, even though there are reasons for Data to guess that the Exocomps are capable of said self-preservation, and the episode ultimately mostly supports Data's conclusion, Data really *is* taking a big chance here, and that makes it a much more interesting story to me. Data believes, but he doesn't know, and he's not only willing to die for that belief, he's willing to let others die for it too. That is both cold-blooded and passionate. That's our Data.
mephyve - Sun, Sep 1, 2013 - 7:52pm (USA Central)
Another 'Hey the new toy is alive!' episode. And once again Data gets a free pass.
Data asks Crusher the definition of lie. Seems to me he would have thousands of references that dealt with the subject in far more detail than Crusher's two minute 'hmm let me see' hypothesis. Guess he was just looking for an ally.
2 stars
mephyve - Sun, Sep 1, 2013 - 8:11pm (USA Central)
Just an aside, doesn't the machines' creator have the design specs to make more of these things? And as their 'creator' and owner shouldn't she have the right to use them as she sees fit? She was able to turn off their self preservation 'mode' which suggests that they are more robot than lifeform.
William B - Mon, Sep 2, 2013 - 3:16am (USA Central)
@mephyve, while I like this episode a lot, I was bothered for a while about Data's asking Crusher the definition of life, especially since one of Data's majors was exobiology. However, the more I think about it the more it seems as if he was going to Crusher to bounce ideas off; he seemed prepared for her definition and didn't hesitate with his fire example and with himself as counterexample.

Even still, that doesn't 100% satisfy me. That is one of those things -- along with the lack of real life/sentience delineation, and the lack of real consequences -- that make me think I was too generous to the episode earlier. Sigh -- it drives me a little crazy, because (IMHO) it's so close to something great but doesn't quite argue it compellingly enough.

I disagree that Dr. Farallon's ability to turn off the self-preservation mode of the Exocomps was a sign that they were not alive, though. One can lobotomize humans, for example, which removes higher reasoning skills and what it is that makes them unique.
Spance - Sat, Nov 23, 2013 - 6:08pm (USA Central)
This is a very good episode, especially the last half hour, and far more dramatic than Measure of A Man, at last if we ignore the hokey looking Xcoms.
DutchTrekker - Tue, Dec 3, 2013 - 4:22am (USA Central)
Bad Episode.

Ok : the enterprise LOOKS for life ANY life.
(a class M planet with only a few microbes on it would from that mission point still be interesting)

Still I was like the writer of this article thinking of : not all life is equall.

So they have PROVEN to have a survival instinct.
so have MANY annimals and we we would slaughter them without thought to save a sentient being.

Sentient life < Annimal life < Plantlife < MicrobialLife
Simple as that.

I have not seen probe these exocombs are sentient, so they are like annimals.

Sure there WOULD be some green ecomaniacks that would kill humans for the SURVIVAL of an annimal species. And while these exocomps CAN be recreated (so you can revive them after becoming extinct) one may play the "don't kill all of a species"

kinda like, would you sacrifice the last 3 pandabears or tigers in the entire universe to save just 2 of billions of humans?

Normally I'd say : no, unless we have a proper backup copy. (like ability to clone them or something to restore the species after extiction)
and in this case we have!

even better there are 3! -> so the best bet would be, send in 2, not 3, keep 1 to make copy's later from.
Andreas - Tue, Dec 10, 2013 - 6:20pm (USA Central)
DutchTrecker, I believe you don't know what "sentient life" means. I would like you to define it to include humans but exclude animals. My dictionary defines it "the ability for subjective feelings or perceptions" - in cave man terms: If it hit it, does it feel pain? That definition includes all animal life as sentient life.

But even aside from that, this episode raised a question about ethics. Is it okay for Riker to (essentially) kill three sentient beings to save two other ones? You say it is and you even list off the steps of importance of different forms of life. But you do this from a human perspective and you don't try to elevate your mind above that. Data is not human and thus doesn't have your mindset - to him it would not be okay to "slaughter them without thought" for humans. How would you approach this issue if it was Exocombs discussing to kill humans in order to save other Exocombs?

I don't try to persuade you to think Data was right. But please think about this issue from more angles, than just the narrow anthropocentric view that is natural to us. Trek is also about transcending certain of our "natural" points of view (consider: Money, Relationships, Conflicts etc).
William B - Tue, Dec 10, 2013 - 11:54pm (USA Central)
"Data is not human and thus doesn't have your mindset - to him it would not be okay to "slaughter them without thought" for humans."

--> This is what I really love about it. IMO, the episode actually goes out of its way to make it hard to relate to the Exocomps, and hard to believe they are sentient, in order to make Data's decision more shocking. But Data's decision is absolutely in keeping with who Data is and his own position. Data is more like the Exocomps in terms of how he was built and created than he is like the Enterprise crew. If he is alive and sentient -- and he has to make a leap of faith to believe in that, as he states in, for example, "Rightful Heir" -- then why can't the Exocomps be? Data himself admits that he hasn't sufficient proof to indicate that the 'comps are alive to Riker, but is following his beliefs.

Similarly, from Data's POV, the fact that Dr. Farallon could simply replicate more Exocomps is not exactly a comfort when considering deliberately sending three, uh, "civilians" (the Exocomps didn't willingly join an organization knowing that sacrificing their lives was a possibility) to save two officers. I mean, humans can always make more humans, that's no reason to throw human lives away. Data is perfectly willing to sacrifice his own life, too, so it's not as if he doesn't already have a plan in mind to save Picard & La Forge -- but Riker, understandably, won't sacrifice Data (even an insubordinate Data) to save those two, showing that he does identify Data as being as valuable a life as Picard & Geordi.

The episode does stack the deck a little -- having the Exocomps display not just self-preservation and creativity, but also self-sacrifice, to suggest traits that connect them with our conception of what is valuable about humanity -- but Dr. Farallon only makes it to "You've given me a lot to think about" and that she will be more careful with the Exocomps. She still hasn't come all the way to seeing them as alive, which means she's still not as far as long as Maddox was with Data at the end of "The Measure of a Man" (when he switched to "him" instead of "it"), and IMO she's been portrayed much more sympathetically than Maddox was. I don't think the episode requires that we come away thinking the Exocomps are indeed life of similar value to humans, but merely to understand why Data is absolutely dedicated to defending them when that's how he sees them. I think it could have been done better -- a stronger sense of demarcation between "life" and "sentient life," for example, though at least Beverly mentions that the Exocomps might be intelligent life at some point. (I think Data sees the 'comps as both.) But it's mostly a character piece for Data showing him applying the logic used by Picard to defend him in "The Measure of a Man" outward to other potential artificial life forms who have no such advocate, as Data says at the episode's end, which in the process poses an open question which complicates our assessment of Data's personhood.
Kristen - Wed, Dec 18, 2013 - 7:56am (USA Central)
I found the character of Farallon strange/perhaps badly written. She is disappointed that the exocomps do not perform their intended function (at least not always), but shouldn't she be -thrilled- that she just invented a highly intelligent form of AI? Isn't that a much bigger accomplishment than some technological model that will be outdated in a few years?
Eli - Fri, Feb 28, 2014 - 6:52pm (USA Central)
I thought this was a great episode. As others said, great follow up to Measure of a Man. It was such an eloquently straightforward exploration of the meaning of life through a sci-fi lense.
DLPB - Sun, May 18, 2014 - 7:20pm (USA Central)
So the creator of a tool doesn't know how it became sentient? Pull the other one.
SamSimon - Mon, May 26, 2014 - 2:09pm (USA Central)
I'm surprised to see so much hate for this episode. I think it is a great one, Data shines for what he says and what he does. It is also an episode that makes me think a lot about respect, and about how we weigh the various life forms on our planet (for instance, we all love pets like dogs and cats, but the vast majority of us also enjoys steaks at the same time).

I was actually surprised to see such a low score by Jammer, whose judgment I normally appreciate a great deal.
2piix - Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - 11:40am (USA Central)
Didn't they already do this premise? I've been watching all seven seasons and I seem to remember Data dodging a laser cannon mining drill. And mining. And intelligent life.

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