1 Introduction
It has long been realized that we can design more efficient learning algorithms if we can make them learn on multiple tasks. Transfer learning, multitask learning and metalearning are just few of the subareas of machine learning where this idea has been pursued vigorously. Often the goal is to minimize the weighted average losses over a set of tasks that are expected to be similar. While previous literature often assumes a predetermined (and often equal) number of observations for all the tasks, in many applications, we are allowed to decide the
order in which the tasks are presented and the number of observations from each task. Any strategy that tries to improve the performance with a better task scheduling is usually referred to curriculum learning (CL) (Bengio et al., 2009). The agent that schedules tasks at each step is often referred as the task scheduler.Though curriculum learning has been extensively used in modern machine learning (Gong et al., 2016; Sachan and Xing, 2016; Tang et al., 2018; Narvekar et al., 2020)
, there is very little theoretical understanding of the actual benefits of CL. We also do not know whether the heuristic methods used in many empirical studies can be theoretically justified. Even the problem itself has not been rigorously formulated. To address these challenges, we first formulate the curriculum learning problem in the context of the linear regression problem. We analyze the minimax optimal rate of CL in two settings: an unstructured setting where parameters of different tasks are arbitrary and a structured setting where they have a lowrank structure. Finally we discuss the theoretical justification of a popular heuristic task scheduler that greedily selects tasks with highest local prediction gain.
2 Background
We would like to point out previous work on three crucial aspects of CL: two types of benefits one may expect from CL, task similarities assumptions, and task scheduler used in empirical studies.
Two types of benefits.
There are two distinct ways to understand the benefits of CL. From the perspective of optimization, some papers argue that the benefits of curriculum can be interpreted as learning from more convex and more smooth objective functions, which serves as a better initialization point for the nonconvex target objective function (Bengio et al., 2009). The order of task scheduling is essential here. As an example, Figure 1 shows the objective functions of a problem with four source tasks and one target task with increasing difficulty (nonconvexity). Directly minimizing the target task (marked in purple line) using gradient descent can be hard due to the nonconvexity. However, the simple gradient descent algorithm can converge to the global optima of the current task if it starts from the global optima of the previous task. We refer to the benefit that involves a faster convergence in optimization as optimization benefit. Optimization benefits highly depend on the order of scheduling. Generally speaking, if one directly considers the empirical risk minimizer (ERM) which requires global minimization of empirical risk, there may not be any optimization benefit.
The second type of benefit concerns the benefit brought by carefully choosing the number of observations from each task while independent of the order, which we call statistical benefit
. For example, we have two linear regression problems that are identical except for the standard deviation of the Gaussian noise on response variables. If we consider the OLS estimator on the joint dataset of the two tasks, there is a reduction in noise level when more samples are allocated to the task with a lower level, and the benefit is independent of the order by the nature of OLS. A
statistical benefit can be seen as any benefit one can get except for the reduction in the difficulties of optimization. Weinshall and Amir (2020) focused on a special curriculum learning task where each sample is considered a task and they analyzed the convergence rate on the samples of different noise levels. They analyzed the benefits on the convergence rate, which should count as the statistical benefits.In general, the two types of benefits can coexist. A good curriculum should account for both the nonconvexity and the noise levels. However, due to the significantly different underlying mechanism in the two learning benefits. it is natural to study them separately. This paper will focus on the analysis of the statistical benefits. Thus, we analyze algorithms that map datasets to an estimator for each task that may involve finding global minima of the empirical errors for nonconvex functions.
Similarity assumptions.
We discussed the problem with two almost identical tasks, where we can achieve perfect transfer and the trivial curriculum that allocates all the samples to the simpler task is optimal. However, tasks are generally not identical. Understanding how much benefits the target task can gain from learning source tasks has been a central problem in transfer learning and multitask learning literature. The key is to propose meaningful similarity assumptions.
Let and be the input and output space. Assume we have tasks with data distributions over . Let be a sample from task . Let , a mapping
, be the mean function. In this paper, we adopt the simple parametric model on the mean function with
represented by parameter .We consider two scenarios: structured and unstructured. In Section 3, we adopt simple linear regression models and do not assume any further internal structure on the true parameters. Two tasks are similar if is small. A learned parameter is directly transferred to the target task. This setting has been applied in many previous studies (Yao et al., 2018; Bengio et al., 2009; Xu et al., 2021). In Section 4, we study the multitask representation learning setting (Maurer et al., 2016; Tripuraneni et al., 2020; Xu and Tewari, 2021), where a stronger internal structure is assumed. To be specific, we write , where , is the linear representation mapping and is the task specific parameter. Generally, the input dimension is much larger than the representation dimension ().
These two settings, while representative, do not exhaust all of the settings in the literature. We refer the reader to Teshima et al. (2020) for a brief summary of theoretical assumptions on the task similarity.
Task schedulers.
Many empirical methods have been developed to automatically schedule tasks. Liu et al. (2020)
designed various heuristic strategies for task selection for computer vision tasks.
Cioba et al. (2021) discussed several metalearning scenarios where the optimal data allocations are different, which interestingly aligns with our theoretical results. For a more general use, one major family of task scheduler is based on the intuition that the task scheduler should select the task that leads to the highest local gain on the target loss (Graves et al., 2017). Since the accurate prediction gain is not accessible, online decisionmaking algorithms (bandit and reinforcement learning) are frequently used to adaptively allocate samples
(Narvekar et al., 2020). However, there is no theoretical guarantee that such greedy algorithms can lead to the optimal curriculum.Notation.
For any positive integer , we let . We use the standard and notation to hide universal constant factors. We also use and to indicate and .
3 Unstructured Linear Regression
In this section, we study the problem of learning from tasks to generate an estimate for a single target task.
3.1 Formulations
We consider linear regression tasks. Let denote tasks. Let denote the true parameter of task . The response of task is generated in the following manner
where is assumed to be the Gaussian noise with and where is the covariance matrix that is positive definite. Any task, therefore, can be fully represented by a triple .
Throughout the paper, we are more interested in the unknown parameters rather than the covariate distribution or the noise level. We simply denote the parameters of a problem ( tasks) and let be the th column of the matrix.
We make a uniform assumption on the covariance matrix of input variables. The same assumption is also used by Du et al. (2020).
Assumption 1 (Coverage of covariate distribution).
We assume that all for some constant and any .
Goal.
Let be random samples from task . Let
be a loss function and
be the expected loss of a given hypothesis evaluated on task . Moreover, we denote the excess risk byOur goal in this section is to minimize the expected loss of the last task , which we call the target task. Throughout the paper, we use square loss function.
Transfer distance.
Algorithms tend to perform better when the tasks are similar to each other, such that any observations collected from nontarget task bear less transfer bias. We define transfer distance between tasks as .
It is not fair to compare the performances between problems with different transfer distances. To study a minimax rate, we are interested in the worst performance over a set of problems with similar transfer distance. Let
be the distance vector encoding the upper bounds on the distance between the target task to any task. We define the hypothesis set with known transfer distance as
. The hypothesis set with unknown transfer distance can be defined as , where is any permutation of . We say this hypothesis set has unknown transfer distance because even if there exists some small such that the transfer distance is low, an agent does not know which task has the low transfer distance.Curriculum learning and task scheduler.
This paper concerns only the statistical learning benefits. Since the order of selecting tasks does not affect the outcome of the algorithm, we denote a curriculum by , where each is the total number of observations from task and . Note that
can consist of random variables depending on the task scheduler. The set of all the curriculum with a total number of observations
is denoted by .Any curriculum learning involves a multitask learning algorithm, which is defined as a mapping from a set of datasets to a hypothesis for the target task.
A task scheduler runs the following procedure. At the start of the step , we have observations from each task. The task scheduler at step is defined as a mapping from the past observations to a task index. Then a new observation from the selected task is sampled.
Minimax optimality and adaptivity.
One of the goals of this work is to understand the minimax rate of the excess risk on the taregt task over all the possible combinations of multitask learning algorithms and task schedulers. We first attempt to understand a limit of that rate by considering an oracle scenario that provides the optimal curriculum for any problem.
Rigorously, we denote the loss of a fixed curriculum with respect to a fixed algorithm and problem by
We define the following oracle rate, which takes infimum over all the possible fixed curriculum designs given a fixed task set with different in a hypothesis set .
(1) 
In general, the above oracle rate considers an ideal case, because the optimal curriculum depends on the unknown problem and any learning algorithm has to adaptively learn the problem to decide the optimal curriculum.
We ask the following question: can adaptively learned curriculum perform as well as the optimal one as in Equ. (1)? To answer the question, we define the minimax rate for adaptive learning:
(2) 
where is the curriculum adaptively selected by the task scheduler and the expectation is taken over both datasets and .
3.2 Oracle rate
In this section, we analyze the oracle rate defined in Equ. (1). We first give an overview of our results. For any problem instance, there exists a single task such that the naive curriculum with matches a lower bound for the oracle rate defined in Equ. (1).
For any task , its direct transfer performance of the OLS estimator on the target task can be roughly bounded by .
Thus, our result implies that essentially, the goal of curriculum learning is to identify the best task that balance the transfer distance and the noise level.
Theorem 1.
Let be a fixed distance vector defined above. The oracle rate within in Equ. (1) can be lower bounded by
(3) 
Proof highlights.
Kalan et al. (2020) showed a minimax rate of the transfer learning problem with only one source task. They considered three scenarios, which can be uniformly lower bounded by the right hand side of Equ. (3). Our analysis can be seen as an extension of their results to multiple source tasks. In general, let the rate in (3) be and be a constant. Let be the best task indicated by (3). Any task with a large distance () is not helpful to learn the target task. Thus, samples from these tasks can be discarded without reducing the performance. For any task with , we will show that any sample from task gives almost as much as information as the best task gives. Thus, one can replace them with a random sample from the best task without reducing the loss. Then the problem can be converted to a single source task problem, from where we follow the lower bound construction in Kalan et al. (2020).
3.3 Minimax rate for adaptive learning
The problem can be hard when the transfer distance is unknown. We introduce an intuitive example to help understand our theoretical result. Assume we have three tasks including one target task and two source tasks. One of the two source tasks is identical to the target task. We have samples for both source tasks, while no observations from the target task. In this example, even if one of the source tasks is identical to the target task, no algorithm can decide which source task should be adopted, since we have no information from the target task. In other words, any algorithm can be as bad as the worst out of the two source tasks. This is not an issue when the transfer distance is known to the agent in the oracle scenario. This example implies that to adaptively gain information from source tasks, we will need sufficient information from the target task. Otherwise, there is risk of including information from tasks that contaminates the target task. Similarly, David et al. (2010) also showed that without any observations from the target task, domain adaptation is impossible.
More generally, even if we have some data from the target task, we will show that one is not able to avoid term, the learning difficulty of the target task. Now we formally introduce our results.
Theorem 2.
Assume . Let . Let be a fixed distance vector that satisfies and for all . The minimax rate in Equ. (2) can be lower bounded by
(4) 
Theorem 2 implies that without knowing the transfer distance, any adaptively learned curriculum of any multitask learning algorithm will suffer an unavoidable loss of , when is large. Compared to the rate without transfer learning, there is still a potential improvement of a factor of when and are small.
Upper bound.
As we showed above, there is a potential improvement of . This is because given the prior information that one of the source tasks is identical to the target task, the problem reduces from estimating a dimensional vector to identifying the best task from a candidate set, whose complexity reduces to .
In fact, a simple fixed curriculum could achieve the above minimax rate. Assume that any for some constant . Let and for all the other tasks . For each , let be the OLS estimator using only its own samples. Let be the projection of onto . Then we choose one estimator from , that minimizes the empirical loss for the target task:
(5) 
Theorem 3.
Note that is a random value. However, when all satisfy , the first term is the dominant term and our bound matches the lower bound in (4). This could happen when for all . For a fixed problem instance, as long as is sufficiently large, one should be able to identify the optimal source task, which removes the dependence of in the second term above. To this end, we introduce another task scheduler based on task elimination in Appendix C.
General function class.
As we mentioned before, though it is difficult to identify the good source tasks, the complexity of doing so is still lower than learning the parameters directly. We remark that this result can be generalized to any function class beyond linear functions. Keeping all the other setup unchanged, we assume that the mean function for some input space and output space shared by all the tasks. For convenience, we assume there is no covariate shift, i.e. the input distributions are the same. We give an analogy of Theorem 3.
Assumption 2 (Assumption B in Jin et al. (2021)).
Assume is strongly convex and Lipschitz at any . Furthermore, for all and ,
Assume we have observations for all tasks and observations for the target task. Let be the empirical risk minimizer of the task . Similarly to (5), let
where is the empirical loss on task . Let and . We will use Rademacher complexity to measure the hardness of learning a function class. We refer readers to Bartlett and Mendelson (2002) for the detailed definition of Rademacher complexity.
Proposition 1.
Given the above setting and Assumption 2, we have with a probability at least ,
where is the Rademacher complexity of function space .
This bound improves the bound for single target task learning, which scales with , when . The underlying proof idea is still that identifying good tasks is easier than learning the model itself.
4 Structured Linear Regression
Now we consider a slightly different setting, where we want to learn a shared linear representation that generalizes to any target task within a set of interest.
A lot of recent papers have shown that to achieve a good generalization ability of the learned representation, the algorithm have to choose diverse source tasks (Tripuraneni et al., 2020; Du et al., 2020; Xu and Tewari, 2021). They all study the performance of a given choice of source tasks, while it has been unclear whether an algorithm can adaptively select diverse tasks.
4.1 Problem setup
We adopt the setup in Du et al. (2020). Let be the dimension of input and representation, respectively (). We also set . Let be the shared representation. Let be the linear coefficients for prediction functions. The model setup is essentially the same as the setup in Section 3.1 except for the true parameters being . We call this setting structured because if one stacks the true parameters as a matrix, the matrix has a lowrank structure. To be specific, the output of task given by
We use the same setup for the covariate as in Section 3 and we consider for some .
Diversity.
Let be the task selected by the scheduler at step . It has been well understood that to learn a representation that could generalize to any target task with arbitrary , we will need a lower bound on the following term
(7) 
where is the
th largest eigenvalue of a matrix, i.e. the smallest eigenvalue. Basically, we hope the source tasks cover all the possible directions such that any new task could be similar to at least some of the source tasks. Equ. (
7) serves as an assumption in Du et al. (2020). When the true are known, we can simply diversely pick tasks. When the are unknown, the trivial strategy that equally allocates samples will perform badly. For example, let and let all the be identical. The trivial strategy will only cover one direction sufficiently, which ruins the generalization ability.In this section, we will show that it is possible to adaptively schedule tasks to achieve the diversity even in the hard case discussed above.
4.2 Lower bounding diversity
In this section, we introduce an OFU (optimism in face of uncertainty) algorithm that adaptively selects diverse source tasks.
Twophase estimator.
We first introduce an estimator on the unknown parameters. Assume up to step , we have dataset for each task . We evenly split each dataset to two datasets and , both with a sample size of . We solve the optimization problem below:
Note that we split the dataset such that and are independent.
Optimistic task scheduler.
Our algorithm runs by keeping a confidence bound for for each and each step . Lemma 1 introduces a suitable upper bound construction. Lemma 1 holds under the following assumptions.
Lemma 1.
Let . Assume Assumption 1 hold. There exists universal constants such that, at all step , with a probability , we have for all ,
where is the number of observations from task up to step .
Following the bound in Lemma 1, we construct the confidence set with width
At each step for each task , we construct a confidence set around ,
(8) 
Then following the principle of optimism in face of uncertainty, we select the task such that
(9) 
and . Here is our belief for task at the step .
Now we are ready to present our lower bound results for diversity. Our results hold under two assumptions. The first assumption require the representation matrix is not degenerated. We also assume boundedness on ’s.
Assumption 3.
Assumption 4 (Boundedness).
We also assume that for all .
Theorem 4.
If we are provided with the oracle, we will only have the first term above. When is sufficiently large, the second term in Theorem 4 is negligible and we will achieve diversity asymptotically as long as . Our proof follows the standard framework for OFU algorithms. We first show the correctness of the confidence set implied by Lemma 1. Then the key steps are to show the optimism, i.e. and to bound the difference term between the belief and the actual value . We provide the proof in Appendix E.
4.3 Upper bound results
Though the lower bound in Theorem 4 is already satisfying, we still want to shed some light on whether the dependency on is avoidable by showing an upper bound result in Theorem 5.
Theorem 5.
For any curriculum learning algorithm, there exists tasks () such that for all , there exists some , and
Theorem 5 states that the dependency is unavoidable, while there is still a gap of between the upper bound and the lower bound. Our hard case construction is inspired by the case where the naive strategy that allocates samples evenly. To be specific, we consider tasks such that of them are diversely specified and all the other tasks are identical. Naive strategies will fail by having . We divide tasks into blocks. Then we construct similar problems. Different problems have the diverse tasks in different blocks. The difficulty of the problem becomes identifying the block with diverse tasks, which is analogous to the idea of bandit model in a general sense. From here, we follow a similar proof of stochastic bandits (Lattimore and Szepesvári, 2020). The full proofs can be found in Appendix F.
5 Analysis of Prediction Gain
In this section, we give some theoretical guarantees on predictiongain driven task scheduler under the unstructured setting discussed in Section 3. Wo do not consider the structured setting because it is not clear how to apply the predictiongain driven method to multitask representation learning setting.
Prediction Gain and convergence rate.
We define prediction gain in the following way. At the step , a multitask learning algorithm maps any trajectory to a parameter for the target task. Let the estimate at step be . The prediction gain is defined as
At the start of the round , the predictiongain based task scheduler selects such that is maximized.
Note that in general, prediction gain is not observable to the algorithm before and are actually sampled. There are simple ways to estimate prediction gain, for example, from several random samples from each task.
In a linear model, the prediction gain is equivalent to convergence rate.
Weinshall and Amir (2020) discussed various benefits of curriculum learning by show that their strategy gives higher local convergence rate. It is not clear from the context that the greedy strategy that selects the highest local prediction gain gives the best total prediction gain in long run.
Decomposing prediction gain.
Considering a identical covariance matrix , the loss over a given parameter can be written as .
Assume the gradient is calculated from a sample from the task . According to the update of SGD, at the step , we have
where .
The onestep prediction gain is
The first term on the R.H.S is the absolute gain shared by all the tasks. On expectation, the second term is
(10) 
In expectation, the third term is
(11) 
Now we discuss term (10) and (11), respectively. (11) is independent of and it is a dynamic effects depending on the current estimate . That means (11) is independent of the task difficulty and its constantly changes. When , the task has a larger prediction gain. This is when the gradient descent direction is consistent in both target and the task .
For term (10), we notice that task difficulty and transfer distance play equal importance in the prediction gain measure regardless of the number of observations.
Optimality of prediction gain.
Let be the optimal task defined by
We consider an averaging SGD algorithm with a step size . In general, let . The following Theorem shows that the performance of the averaging SGD with an accurate predictiongain based task scheduler matches the minimax lower bound in Theorem 1.
Theorem 6.
Assume . Assume for all . Given tasks with noise levels and transfer distance , let be the averaging SGD estimator with an accurate predictiongain based task scheduler defined above. We have
(12) 
6 Discussion
In this paper, we discussed the benefits of Curriculum Learning under two special settings: multitask linear regression and multitask representation learning. In the multitask linear regression setting, it is fundamentally hard to adaptively identify the optimal source task to transfer. In the multitask representation learning setting, a good curriculum is the curriculum that diversifies the source tasks. We show that the extra error caused by the adaptive learning is small and it is possible to achieve a nearoptimal curriculum. Then we provided theoretical justification for the popular predictiongain driven task scheduler that has been used in the empirical work.
Our results suggest some natural directions for future work. We show a lower bound (Thm. 5) on the diversity in the multitask representation learning setting, while leaving a gap of compared to our upper bound (Thm. 4). We believe this gap is because a loose construction of the hard cases that ignores the difficulty of learning the shared representation. Another direction is to show whether predictiongain methods with no accurate gain estimation could still have performance close to lower bounds for the adaptive learning setting.
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 Rademacher and gaussian complexities: risk bounds and structural results. Journal of Machine Learning Research 3 (Nov), pp. 463–482. Cited by: §3.3.
 Curriculum learning. In Proceedings of the 26th annual international conference on machine learning, pp. 41–48. Cited by: §1, §2, §2.
 How to distribute data across tasks for metalearning?. arXiv preprint arXiv:2103.08463. Cited by: §2.

Impossibility theorems for domain adaptation.
In
Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics
, pp. 129–136. Cited by: §3.3.  Fewshot learning via learning the representation, provably. arXiv preprint arXiv:2002.09434. Cited by: §E.1, §E.1, §3.1, §4.1, §4.1, §4, Lemma 7.
 Multimodal curriculum learning for semisupervised image classification. IEEE Transactions on Image Processing 25 (7), pp. 3249–3260. Cited by: §1.

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 Minimax lower bounds for transfer learning with linear and onehidden layer neural networks. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.10581. Cited by: Appendix A, Appendix A, Appendix A, Appendix B, §3.2, Lemma 2.
 Bandit algorithms. Cambridge University Press. Cited by: Appendix F, Appendix F, §4.3.
 Adaptive task sampling for metalearning. In Computer Vision–ECCV 2020: 16th European Conference, Glasgow, UK, August 23–28, 2020, Proceedings, Part XVIII 16, pp. 752–769. Cited by: §2.
 The benefit of multitask representation learning. Journal of Machine Learning Research 17 (81), pp. 1–32. Cited by: §2.
 Curriculum learning for reinforcement learning domains: a framework and survey. arXiv preprint arXiv:2003.04960. Cited by: §1, §2.
 Easy questions first? a case study on curriculum learning for question answering. In Proceedings of the 54th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long Papers), pp. 453–463. Cited by: §1.
 Attentionguided curriculum learning for weakly supervised classification and localization of thoracic diseases on chest radiographs. In International Workshop on Machine Learning in Medical Imaging, pp. 249–258. Cited by: §1.
 Fewshot domain adaptation by causal mechanism transfer. In International Conference on Machine Learning, pp. 9458–9469. Cited by: §2.
 On the theory of transfer learning: the importance of task diversity. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.11650. Cited by: §2, §4.
 An introduction to matrix concentration inequalities. arXiv preprint arXiv:1501.01571. Cited by: Lemma 5.
 Theory of curriculum learning, with convex loss functions. Journal of Machine Learning Research 21 (222), pp. 1–19. Cited by: §2, §5.
 Decision making problems with funnel structure: a multitask learning approach with application to email marketing campaigns. In International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics, pp. 127–135. Cited by: §2.
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Appendix A Proof of Theorem 1
Proof.
Our proof is inspired by the proof of Kalan et al. (2020), which gives a lower bound construction for the twotasks transfer learning problem. Our results can be seen as an extension of their constructions to multiplesource tasks setting.
We define the optimal task
Let . In general, we construct parameters with the th row corresponding to the hypothesis set of the th task.
We start by constructing the the hypothesis set of the target task and the task . Let . By definition, we have .
Consider the set Let be a packing of the set in the norm (). We can find the packing with . Since , we also have for any .
Now we construct hypothesis set for the target task. For all , we choose such that . So the construction for the target tasks satisfies
Now we discuss two cases. For any task with , we randomly pick a parameter in the hypothesis set of the target task which we denote by and we set all for all . This construction is valid since any .
For any task with , we will use the same construction as we use for .
Let be a random variable uniformly over representing the true hypothesis. The samples for each task is i.i.d. generated from the linear model described in Section 3.1 with a parameter . Our goal is to show that on expectation, any algorithm will perform badly as in Theorem 1.
Let be a random sample from task given the true parameter being . Similarly to (5.2) in Kalan et al. (2020), using Fano’s inequality, we can conclude that
(13) 
We proceed by giving an uniform bound on the mutual information. We will need the following lemma to upper bound the mutual information term.
Lemma 2 (Lemma 1 in Kalan et al. (2020)).
The mutual information between and any sample can be upper bounded by , where is the induced distribution by the parameter . Furthermore we have
Using Lemma 2, we bound the mutual information of any task .
Lemma 3.
Under the constructions introduced above, the mutual information
Proof.
For any task in the first case discussed above (), the mutual information is 0. Thus the statement holds trivially.
Now we discuss the second case above. By definition, we have
(14) 
Note that
Plugging back into (14), we have and by definition we have . Therefore, we have .
Since the constructions are the same for the second case, the mutual information can be uniformly bounded by
∎
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