Artificial Morality

It wasn’t my intention, but the title did make me think of the morality we impose on ourselves, and that perhaps has some amount of implication on the subject of this post too. The post is about this – we seemed to have moved from debating artificial intelligence to the arguably more complex area of morality in robots!  When I first read about robots and ethical choices, (did they mean moral?) my reaction was this


It’s probably a good time to discuss this, since a robot has recently become a Board member in a VC firm as well. Ah, well, in the Foundation series, R. Daneel Olivaw pretty much influenced the mental state of others and controlled the universe. That seems to be one direction where we are headed. The Verge article mentions funding for an in-depth survey to analyze what people think about when they make a moral choice. The researchers will then attempt to simulate that reasoning in a robot. They plan to start with studying moral development in infants.

Thanks to this article, I learned that there were different kinds of morality - operational morality, functional morality, and full moral agency. This is all fascinating stuff and my mind was racing in multiple directions. For one, did morality develop because living in groups was more advantageous from a survival perspective and to live in groups, there had to be some rules that governed this coexistence? Did this ethics then evolve into an acceptable moral framework? These may or may not be in line with our individual instincts. Does that explain why each of us have a different moral code? If that is so, can we ever develop a uniform code for robots? To be noted that ethics are a tad more objective than morals, so they might be relatively more easier to ‘code’.

I also began to think if the augmented human would serve as the bridge between humans and AI and as he develops, will find ways to transfer moral intelligence to AI. Or maybe it would just be logic. Alternately if, as per this awesome post on what increasing AI in our midst would mean, if we do start focusing on human endeavours beyond functional (and driven by money alone) maybe our moral quotient will also evolve and become a homogeneous concept.

In Michener’s Hawaii, one man of science and spirituality discusses dinosaurs with a man of spirituality. I shared this on Instagram, wondering if humanity will be talked about in this manner.

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The changes could be the ones we’re causing nature to make and ‘huge’ could be our gluttonous consumption of resources. In the context of robotics and morality, I immediately thought of Asimov’s Zeroth Law “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.“ What would happen when one set of humans begin to do something that might harm humanity? What would a robot do?

The answers, are evolving. It’s a good time to be human, and to be able to experience wonder.

until next time, moral science

P.S. On a  related note – Bicentennial Man – RIP Robin Williams :’(

Overwinter

Ratika Kapur

‘Mature’ is probably the first word I’d associate with the book. True, it does fall under the general existential angst category, but I felt that it does go beyond the stereotype – in the characters, the way they are handled, and the way situations flow. The story spans only a few months, though the narrative does go back in time to provide contexts and many events unfolding in the story do have a connection with the past.

I felt that the only truly complex person in the book was Ketaki, the protagonist. I could pretty much relate to everyone else very easily, but her way of dealing with situations and people was the little unpredictability that made the book ‘different’. ‘Overwinter’ means spending winter or waiting for it to pass, and that is pretty much what Ketaki seems to be doing. The novel starts with a rather dysfunctional scene involving her and her uncle, but that’s not really a good indication of the story.

Ratika Kapur shows tremendous skill in narrating day to day events (a trip from Delhi to Gurgaon, for instance) such that they completely step out of the mundane. This is also true of her excellent descriptions of human emotions. There is a sense of reality in the book – for instance, the conversations around the Nano or T20 cricket or Nadal vs Tsonga – that happens between characters. It’s as though I stepped into a living room and happened to hear these conversations.

The other word I’d associate with the book is ‘intelligent’. The prose is assured, the narrative measured, and though you may not get a sense of closure that books often give you, this is a wonderful read.

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Revisiting brand purpose

I had almost completed a post on brand purpose when I came across this.

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I have realised that in my personal life, even ‘what you want most’ is a dynamic thing. I am not really arguing against discipline – there was a time when it kept the blog going. But what I wanted most was just simply that the blog shouldn’t die. To get back, in a rapidly changing environment, I sometimes feel that ‘living each moment fully’ is a better bet than a disciplined course of action towards a purpose.

Back to the brand purpose post. In the original draft, I had flipped Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the human context, the hierarchy is traveled upwards, as each need is met and reasonably satisfied. But I wondered if, in the brand context, it should be traversed in the reverse direction. I mapped self actualisation (the brand version of ‘what you want most’) to the brand’s purpose, Esteem to confidence in that purpose and finding the first set of people who will help translating that into a working model, Love/Belonging to getting a community in whose individual narratives the brand narrative can play a part, and the last two levels (Safety, Psychological) as bettering the efficacy and efficiency of the brand respectively. Yes, it is fairly rudimentary, but think about it! :)

But the quote and my reaction to it made me think, is it possible/good to define a brand purpose that remains consistent in a rapidly changing business landscape? Maybe it’s cohesion, as opposed to consistency? Is a flexible purpose accompanied by an agile way of operating  the middle path? Are we getting to a point where the only constant in a brand purpose is relevance and value in the consumer narrative and the brand is guided more by a set of unique principles and perspectives that are constantly reshaped by its environment?

When does a hotel’s brand purpose meet AirBnB or a watch company’s that of wearables, or a bookshop’s that of an online retailer of books/e-books? When it affects business? Is that around the same time as ‘too late’?

High Ultra Lounge

First published in Bangalore Mirror

Sometimes when you’re high, you begin to brag, and sometimes it really can be justified – like when you’re a lounge on the 31st floor of the World Trade Centre, (map) making you one of the highest located dining points in the country, and when you command a breath-taking view of the city that’s arguably unparalleled. It is very rarely that you can get a sense of the city as a whole (outside of Google Maps) and the 180 degree view that High offers is almost humbling. But that’s enough of a high, let me give you the lowdown on the place itself.

It’s open from 5.30 -11.30 PM, and reserving in advance is a good idea. There are different kinds of High, each serving a specific purpose – High View is the lounge space, High Dine is more of a fine dining experience, High Mix is the place for a cocktail do, and High Edge is a private dining area. There’s a sense of shifting moods through these sections, brought about by the colours used and the lighting. Yet, despite the individual personas, all of these flow seamlessly into each other. The seating is trendy and comfortable across the spaces, and on a Saturday night, with music in the background, and the bright lights of Bangalore spread out in front of you, it is easy to feel on top of the world!

It didn’t really make sense to leave ourselves high and dry in such a wonderful ambience, so we quickly scanned the drinks menu – a mix of signature cocktails, classic fare, some interesting mocktails and everything else you’d need in a bar! From the signature drinks, we tried the Moon Lighting, the Spell Bound Bellini and The Last Order. I’d asked for the first, and the vodka based pink-orange coloured drink got me a few smirks from the guys, but that was settled by the Bellini, which was completely lady-like in its pink frothy (and tasty) avatar. The Last Order was a more subtle drink in all respects. The one mocktail we tried – Fame of Passion – was peachy and quite refreshing.

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The food menu, with a lot of focus on appetisers and short eats, is a mix of Asian cuisines – Japanese, Korean and Thai. We began with the salmon sashimi, complemented well by the wasabi and ginger, but preferred the Red Snapper Nigiri over this. Also in good form was the vegetarian dish we tried – the mildly spicy Shichimi-spiced Maki with tenkasu. The Pork Belly was quite good too – well cooked meat with a lime based tangy topping that gave it a flavourful pop. The Prawns Tempura also found a lot of takers – fluffy and crisp batter with succulent meat. The starters ended on a high with the fantastic Chilly Beef Asparagus, spicy enough even for the seasoned palates.

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On a relative scale, there aren’t a lot of choices in the main menu, and a couple of dishes weren’t available, but the remaining did suffice to make a decent meal out of it. The Beef stew was nowhere near what we’d consider a stew, but well cooked meat and mildly spicy flavours meant we didn’t really complain. The San Bei Chicken was a tad too salty for our liking. We had the Soba rice noodles with chilli to go with these and it was liked mainly thanks to its zesty spiciness. The seafood noodles was surprisingly insipid.

It’s a lounge, so understandably there aren’t many dessert options. To be precise, there are three, and the Banoffee Pie was an easy winner given that the competition was a fruit platter and homemade ice creams. The dessert wasn’t bad, though I can’t claim it was the best I’d eaten.

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At a height of over 420 feet and spread across 10000 square feet, High sets the bar high, literally and otherwise. Special thanks to Guru, who in addition to being wonderful at his job as the resident mixologist, also charmed us with his child management skills! An energetic yet relaxing ambiance, good appetisers, superb service, and a view that might remain unmatched for quite a while, High has everything going for it.  A meal for two would cost around Rs.3500 (Inclusive of taxes and service charge) The pricing might make it seem a little for the highborn, but hey, the experience is difficult to top!

High Ultra Lounge, Roof Top, World Trade Center, 31st Floor, Brigade Gateway Campus, 26/1, Dr. Rajkumar Road, Malleshwaram West, Ph: 08045674567

Linking learning & labour

I’m a huge Asimov fan, and am constantly amazed at how he was able to have a perspective of the future on multiple fronts. I was reminded of two of those recently thanks to their application (of sorts) in contemporary scenarios.

First, Hari Seldon‘s (pretty much the foundation of Asimov’s Foundation series) psychohistory, which was able to make general predictions on the future behaviour of large populations using history, sociology and statistics. The easy contemporary connection is big data and predictive analytics.

Second, a short story written by him called ‘Profession‘, (do read) in which every person’s profession is based on an analysis of his/her brain, and no choice is given to the person in this matter! In India, we seem to be already there even without the analysis!

Collectively, these two made me think of employment, and on a related note, education. The thought was that with so much of data available on education and employment, we should be able to create ‘tests’ to compute the interest and aptitude of individuals at a very early age. What this would aim to do is to eliminate the herd education that currently exists. Instead, children would learn things that help them in a profession for which they have the intent and interest, using say, a combination of traditional classrooms and MOOCs. Also, this would no longer be one part of a life cycle, but a continuous process – helping the individual thrive in a dynamic environment.

If you remember, LinkedIn was my representative for ‘L’ in the ‘change imperative‘ deck. That was because I felt that it had the data and the vision to be the catalyst for this kind of a change. I was very happy when it underscored this faith with the fantastic ‘future self‘ experiment, in which they identified the future professional self (5 year time frame) of LinkedIn user Kurt Wagner – another user Mussarat Bata – using various data points!

LinkedIn hasn’t really built this as a public tool, but just imagine the possibilities! A platform that shows people the possibilities which take them closer to their ‘purpose’. (remember ‘The Evolution of Work and the Workplace‘?) I sincerely hope to see this in my lifetime. :)

until next time, live and learn

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The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

Paul Theroux 

Whenever I take a vacation, I arrive as a tourist and like to think that I leave at least partly converted into a traveler. I am forever envious of travelers, many of whose journeys serve as a purpose in itself. This book is an excellent little guide to what the author mentions in the preface – paraphrasing the Buddha – “You cannot travel the path before you become the path itself”, and how travel is also a way of living, and thinking.

In addition to excerpts from various works by different travel writers and adventurers, classified by unique and amazing themes from Railways, time spent in travel to Murphy’s laws, to imaginary journeys, how places are different from what they sound like and so on, the book is peppered with Travel Wisdom from various authors.

There are gems hidden in the pages – little quotes that somehow tell you that the spirit within each wanderer is essentially the same. The description of places and times by masters are splendid enough to transport you to locales across to world from Alaska to Africa and Russia to South America….And it’s not just the places, but the people who live there, the way they think, and one can sense the cord that invisibly connects humanity.

In 275 pages, the author manages to indeed provide a Tao of Travel across time and space. Must read.

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Social Nextworks

The impending death of Orkut (2004-2014) made me think of the evolution of social networking and its transience. Orkut lived ‘only’ for 10.5 years, and this is despite being part of Google, though some would call that a disadvantage. Facebook  has been around for the same time, and the fact that it is a force to reckon with is a testament of its understanding of this transience. It also explains the acquisition of Instagram, Whatsapp and the attempt on Snapchat.

However, I recently realised that I am probably more active on Whatsapp, Instagram and Pinterest than Facebook and Twitter. I am also reasonably active on Secret. That made me dig a bit deeper.

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(via)

What is changing? From my observations, there are at least two factors that are driving the change.

Perspectives on connectivity: The early era was fueled by the need to connect. Facebook is soaring well beyond a billion users, and its longevity is (also) because the need still exists. It continues to look for better ways to do this, manifested through front end and back end changes. But despite this, and my own curation of my newsfeed by sending signals to Facebook, I am regularly overwhelmed by the volume. This goes for Twitter too. Personally, I have treated these platforms as a means of self expression. I would also like to choose the people whose perspectives I want, and who are entitled to a judgment, if any. But that’s not so easily done on popular platforms.

That’s when I start to look at the many ways to handle this – from social networks to messaging apps. I could go to where the crowds are relatively less and/or are more ‘focused’ – by domain or use cases, (LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram) I could interact with smaller groups, (WhatsApp) use ephemerality (Snapchat) or be anonymous (Secret) As I mentioned, at least three of these work for me. A wonderful nuance I caught in Mitch Joel ‘s prophetic ‘The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity‘, is that it may not just be ‘something to hide’ that makes some prefer anonymity, but it could also be so that ‘who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion’. Anonymity on the web is not new, but many of its enablers are.

Devices: The networks of an earlier era (eg.Facebook) were made for desktop and had to adapt for mobile. On the other hand, Instagram, Whatsapp, Secret, Snapchat etc are mobile natives. Given the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, their growth is not surprising.

What are the possible business models and what’s a brand to do? As more and more users flock to these new platforms, they would need to mature, with business models which could mean associations with brands – the journey from social network to social media.

Instagram and Pinterest are already social media, making advertising at least one of their revenue sources. WhatsApp does not like advertising and already makes money on downloads. Its competitors like Line, KakaoTalk, WeChat etc, however, have found various other means - virtual items, (stickers, in app purchases in free video games) promotional messages, baby steps in electronic payment handling fees, and interesting tie-ups. Snapchat already has many marketers on it and is likely to offer promotion options too, probably tied to a time bound event.

Secret has a lot of negativity surrounding it – s3x talk and startup malice and being just a fad – and there are comparisons to Formspring and its demise despite funding. But beyond advertising and in app puchases, maybe, there’s also potential for insights on a brand and its use cases? Things that cannot be found on indexed platforms. Also, Whisper already has a content deal with Buzzfeed.

Analytics for such platforms haven’t even really begun yet, but it can’t be far away. But more importantly, all of these platforms are potential enablers for a brand to take forward its narrative and become relevant to its users. It continues to be about storytelling, and digital.

Mother Cluckers

12th Main Indiranagar now rivals Koramangala in terms of cuisine diversity! Mother Cluckers belongs to the Plan B family and pretty much rules the roost in terms of popularity in the area. (map) I was told that finding a table among the dozen options available would be near impossible. But we were early cluckers and got a spot, near the ‘hippie entrance’. In about half an hour, the place was packed. Not surprising, since it’s not a really large space. In case you don’t get lucky, take your drink and spend some time in the smoking zone beside the entrance. They have made the most of the space – rustic brick walls adorned with plaques and posters that sum up the commitment to clucking good food. The glasses, tissues and even the menu show the lineage quite clearly – Plan B. The dim lighting (though they have done a fantastic job of ensuring tables are well lit) and a general informal ambiance and decor make it a perfect spot to unwind in the evening. That’s despite the mildly uncomfortable wooden park bench seating. The music went everywhere from ‘Walk of Life’ to ‘Summertime Sadness’, and the decibel levels don’t really encourage a lot of clucking.

One gigantic menu, one side of which is occupied by solids, and the other by liquids. The focus is clearly on bites that can go with drinks, which does make eminent sense given the place’ intent. We decided to test out the standard stuff before the specials. The Long Island, despite not skimping in alcohol, fell rather flat. The Caipirovska didn’t have as many illustrious ingredients, but was a much better drink – smooth and refreshing. The obvious choice for me, from the house specials, was Chutney Mary – a mix of vodka, guava juice, and spices. I suspect the ‘spices’ were chaat masala, but the drink is fantastic, if you’re the kind who doesn’t mind the drink being ‘hot’. Also, it does set the tone for the food. From “The Clucker’s Arsenal”, we asked for the Fiery Clucker, boneless chicken, grilled and marinated. Tasty enough, but surprisingly, despite the name, it turned out to be relatively less spicy than the other starters we tried. The Chilli Fried Pork, on the other hand, did live up to its name, and is only for those who can handle the heat! The Beef Chili Cheese Fries occupied the middle ground, with the cheese tempering the spiciness of the beef. The bacon with sausage, was exactly like all things that have bacon – great! The crunchy prawns were true to the name, and though the batter was bland, the mildly pungent dip made up for it. It was also a good respite from the spice assault! This is not really the best place for herbivores, but the Stuffed Mushrooms are totally worth a try, thanks to the delicious cheese and spinach stuffing.

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The mains options consist of burgers and a reasonable selection of other dishes. We started with the Pandi Burger, probably the most unique one in the list. Instead of the patty, there’s spicy Coorg pork, with a zesty tang to it. They have a crab burger as well, in case you prefer a sea adventure. The Smoked Spare Ribs is another dish that stands out from among the spice crowd! The marinade is sweet and only mildly spicy, with well cooked meat. Yet again, there was a pleasant veg surprise, this time in the form of Baked Eggplant, with a healthy dose of cheese and a tasty sauce.

The menu doesn’t display desserts, so we had given up hope, until one of us noticed the board outside with four options! We chose the Banoffee pie and a Chocolate cheesecake. It’s counterintuitive to go to a pub for desserts, but you’d be forgiven in this case. Spectacular stuff and a sweet mother clucking end to a meal!

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A meal for two would cost around Rs.1500 (Inclusive of taxes and service charge) – a couple of cocktails, a non veg starter, a main course dish and a dessert. There are only two things that can bring tears to your eyes – your preference for veg dishes (if any), and the spice levels in pretty much all the dishes. If you’re fine with that, and a hoarse voice that comes from shouting over the music, you’ll completely enjoy the place. The place is built for carnivores who enjoy their drinks. The rest of the world would unfortunately have to go cluck itself.

Mother Cluckers Bar, 957, 12th Main, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar Ph: 9886092625

The legacy need

The last two books I read had only a faint connection. One was historical fiction and the other was a memoir. The first – “A Spoke in the wheel” by Amita Kanekar – is a take on Buddha and his teachings by a monk three hundred years after the Buddha’s death when his teachings have begun their journey into religion, the emperor Asoka being the key catalyst. The second – “City of Djinns” By William Dalrymple is his discovery of Delhi – past and present – in a year that he spent in the city in the early 90s. The connection, as you might have guessed, is historical narrative.

It is natural to think that there is a huge difference in a work of fiction and a more research and experience led memoir, but the point of the post is that with time, it is difficult to establish that. In the book on the Buddha, the monk chronicling his life and teachings is irritated by the supernatural abilities being attributed to him. But we do know that many people believe in it now and even consider him as one among the avatars of Vishnu. On a related note, William Dalrymple delivered a body blow to my notions of the Mahabharata era when his conversation with an archaeologist constituted a distinct possibility that the war was fought with sticks and stones and probably a bit of metal! (the proof being excavations around what is considered one of the earliest versions of Delhi – Indraprastha) I am a huge fan of Hindu mythology and it has fascinated me from as long as I can remember. I truly believed that they had happened in some form, but the archaeologist is clear that most descriptions in the epic would fall under ‘poetic license’!

It made me wonder if there would be any difference between the two books say, a hundred years from now. It is possible they might exchange roles. It is also possible that they both are treated as fiction, or as factual pieces of work. I think all scenarios are possible because at the time of chronicling something, we believe that its factuality would be transmitted across time. And yet, we could debate the Mahabharata’s historical authenticity and Buddha’s superpowers both ways! So think about it, the same thing could happen to the information we store now as well. Thanks to digitisation, more data is being created in this world than ever before and (arguably) every point made has a counterpoint. There are no objective annotations because even the original construction is a product of biases, interpretations, perspectives and so on.

That brings me to legacy, something a lot of us care about. From children to business empires to art to helping others, there are many avenues. However, I think that unless there is documentation, the chances of a legacy lasting beyond a few generations is questionable. For example, Dalrymple finds the last line of direct Mughal descendants and their knowledge of their ancestors is limited to a few generations before them. The futurist in me does fantasise about a global neural network and consciousness that connects all of humanity and has sufficient storage to instantly collect, catalog and annotate all ‘memories’  in as objective a state as possible for later generations to study them.

But meanwhile, even as I dissect my baggage of the past, I am now forced to consider my need for leaving a legacy – something behind that will represent me when I’m gone.  After all of the above, how relevant is that need? Isn’t it just a demand made by the ego, a story we create for ourselves? Something to continue the narrative of our lives? We do talk a lot about letting go of the baggage of the past, but isn’t legacy also a baggage? A baggage of our future? If we let go of that, how different would our thoughts and deeds be? Understanding that is probably the key to living in the moment. I could easily twist my favourite cricketer-gentleman’s words for this context- He’s not concerned about his legacy, he’s concerned about what actually makes him come alive in the first place, which is that love of life, the desire to live completely.

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until next time, present participant

First Draft: Witness To The Making Of Modern India

B.G. Verghese

BG Verghese’ “First Draft” is part memoir, part history and covers many decades in its wide sweep. From the description of the Times on the day of his birth (21/06/1927) until his assessment of the challenges facing the nation in 2010, the book is his perspective on the events he has witnessed and many a time, been part of. Sometimes it is tinged with nostalgia – his description of the Doon School for instance, and at other times, it is an objective view of the various decisions and circumstances that have shaped India.

From national milestones like the first elections (described so we get an idea of the herculean task it was in an era that didn’t have the communication infrastructure we see now) and the construction of the steel plants and dams and IITs,IIMs we see around now, to humanity’s collective achievements such as Neil Armstrong on the moon (even as a villager adamantly states that it is just impossible) we get a first hand view of things we now acknowledge as history and landmarks. Relationships with the US, USSR as well as neighbouring countries and the wars fought with the latter, including an analysis of the things we did right/wrong all appear, mostly in chronological order. Also adding texture to the narrative are anecdotes of Prime Ministers, most significantly Indira Gandhi. The formation of AIR and Doordarshan, nuclear tests, the political battles within the Congress, formation of other parties, JP’s work, the rise of Naxalism, Operation Bluestar, Sanjay Gandhi’s bizarre schemes, the Emergency, the death of Mrs.Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s baby steps into politics and the paradigm shifts he kickstarted, communal riots, the formation of LTTE, the Bhopal tragedy, VP Singh and Mandal and Bofors, BJP and Ramjanmabhoomi, the chronic Kashmir issue all gives one a feel of time travel.

There is massive ground covered – nuclear policy, social-economics, geo-political relationships, the functioning of media houses etc in addition to his views on public service broadcasting, policies for the North East, industrialisation, water and so on. As an editor and someone who has worked with the government, and as part of external agencies, fact finding committees and so on, the author is well placed to deliver an incisive view of history as it was being made and with the advantage of hindsight. (now) Barring a meagre few pats on the back and digressions, he does provide a decent and objective look. It is quite a humbling feeling to ‘watch’ as generations of politicians and institutions almost flash by and one finds some pattern in the fuzziness seen around – the reason for the way we are, as a country. It is also heartening to see that patriotism aside, the author feels that we are on an ascendant. Despite some patches that are specific in nature (towards the last 100 pages) and tend to be discourses, this is a great read for anyone interested in modern history.

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