chain_extension is one way to call into the runtime from a smart contract on the contracts pallet.
What other methods exist, and why might you use them instead of the extension pattern?
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With an ink! smart contract, you are interacting with the runtime via the
contracts-pallet and it's default defined API. If you want to extend the
contracts-pallet API, the recommended ink! way of doing so is to use the chain extension feature - it's built into the
contracts-pallet and ink!.