As of June 2019
Some Qualia Computing articles stand out as particularly novel, hopeful, and consequential. Below I provide a brief introduction to the top 10 articles (in descending order) written so far*:
This serious article starts with a wacky quote from an alleged clairvoyant couple. They describe the way that objects “feel like” in the “etheric plane of existence”. Don’t be discouraged by the woo in the quote – the article uses it to point out real properties of experience that are rarely talked about outside of spiritual contexts. As is the case in many spiritual circles, the dramatic other-worldly experiences people talk about concerning spiritual realms have an important kernel of truth, at least with regards to phenomenology.
The analysis section compares the descriptions of the etheric-plane experiences described in the quote with free-wheeling hallucinations. A free-wheeling hallucination is a state of mind usually triggered by combining psychedelics and dissociatives, where one can willfully create arbitrary phenomenal objects, akin to a very intense but more controllable version of a lucid dream. In that state, one can analyze the resonance properties of the objects and contexts one chooses to hallucinate. Indeed, one can have startling experiences where each object has a certain musical signature! Above all, this sort of research can be useful to find structural artifacts in the way objects acquire pleasant and unpleasant qualities. As it turns out, more symmetrical objects sound better on those states. This is an important datapoint that we shouldn’t dismiss!
David Pearce is the co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and the writer of the book-length manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative (1995). He’s been in the trenches of transhumanism since the 90s, building a web-empire of essays and hyperlinks, always courageously advocating for the elimination of suffering (“the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event”).
David has been a huge influence on my way of thinking. I first encountered his essays when I was 17 years old and my reaction was “OMG! At least one person is saying sane things on the internet!” To start with, David is one of the few people to have recognized the very core of what is fundamentally wrong in the world. Namely, our reward circuitry. We are miserable not because we are unwise, impulsive, resentful, or addicted to technology. On the contrary! We are those things because we are not naturally happy. Our reward circuitry is rigged against us being happy and motivated in the long term, and no peripheralist approach will ever truly fix this problem. We must address the problem at the very root, and fix our neurological architecture with transhumanist technologies.
His view is that in the future it will be strictly irrational to take any kind of drug, not because we will know better or because we will be boring and conformist, but because we will already be naturally super-happy. This really struck a chord with me:
Fortunately, over the next few centuries humanity will be able to outwit its ancient genetic masters. Our present status as throwaway genetic vehicles will finally be subverted. When gradients of heavenly well-being become the genetically predestined norm of mental health, then the very notion of tampering with our new-won “natural” condition and feeling “drugged” may come to seem immoral. It may also seem perverse. Why should anyone want to contaminate the divine ecstasy of their spirituo-biological soul-stuff with chemical pollutants? No thanks.
– The Good Drug Guide, David Pearce
Nowadays most people have a rather bleak view of the future. And while David is not very optimistic about the prospects of avoiding terrible wars in the 21st century, he nonetheless offers powerful arguments for why in the long run humanity is headed towards a world animated by gradients of superhuman bliss.
I’ve been friends with him since 2011, when I invited him to give a talk at Stanford. More recently, he came to SF last year to give presentations about his predictions for the year 3000 (e.g. see his presentation at Foresight; slides). This article is the source of those presentations.
This is a work of fiction that imagines what theme camps at Burning Man might look like in the year 2029. This was written as an exercise in exploring which comprehensive ideologies will be alive and thriving 10 years from now. Some of them include microlife-based longevity lifestyles (Longevity Camp), a quasi-religious quest to explore the entire state-space of consciousness (Camp Rainbow God), and our very own boss-level rational hedonism worldview, which seeks to uncover the fundamental nature of bliss and optimize experiences for its maximum possible expression (Valence Camp).
7. The Pseudo-Time Arrow: Explaining Phenomenal Time With Implicit Causal Structures In Networks Of Local Binding
This article deals with time. More specifically, the experience of the passage of time. Any theory of consciousness should be able to explain the nature of our everyday modes of being. But in addition, for the theory to be real and complete, it must also be able to make formal models of exotic experiences. This article examines how exotic experiences of time could be explained if we model experiences as graphs, and the feeling of time as the implicit direction of causality in such graphs. In particular, with this model we can explain odd experiences such as looping, time branching, moments of eternity, and atemporal states (which are often experienced during meditation and/or psychedelic states).
This article talks about the big-picture views of who we all are, and how on earth you find yourself as the person reading this very sentence right now rather than being someone else (!). The article provides some speculations about the evolutionary benefits of different views of personal identity (e.g. believing “we are all one” can be beneficial for super-organisms to arise because people with such a belief would be more willing to radically change their state of consciousness and share information with others).
What is pleasure? What is pain? Ask a pharmacologist and they will tell you pleasure and pain are the result of various concentrations of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain. Ask a neurophysiologist and they’ll tell you pleasure and pain are the result of the degree of activation of the pleasure centers and the amygdala in the brain. Ask an AI researcher and they’ll tell you pleasure and pain are the reward signals of a reinforcement learning algorithm implemented by the brain. Ask a life-coach, and they’ll tell you that pleasure and pain are the result of your life’s circumstances such as the quality of your friendships, your engagement at work, and your sense of meaning.
There is a kernel of truth in every one of the responses above, but they all miss the mark somehow. They are saying what pleasure and pain is correlated with, but not what their underlying true essence is.
In this article we advance a fundamental theory of valence (the pleasure-pain axis) built from first principles and which makes precise, empirically testable, predictions. The theory is based on Michael Johnson‘s hypothesis that valence is fundamentally related to symmetry (technically: the degree of symmetry of the mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology; see: Symmetry Theory of Valence) and Selen Atasoy‘s recent work on quantifying the brain’s natural connectome-specific harmonic waves. Combining these two paradigms we can come up with an actual quantitative equation for the overall macroscopic symmetry of a brain state, and in turn, predict how good or bad a given experience will feel. We are currently working on setting up the experiment to empirically test this theory.
This is an article about how to encode information in brief animations that people high on psychedelic drugs can easily decode but sober people cannot. The main trick discussed is the use of visual psychedelic effects (such as tracers) in order to accumulate information across time that would otherwise get erased on a sober state. I coined the term psychedelic cryptography in this piece to describe the set of techniques that enable this kind of secure communication.
In any case, wouldn’t we get bored of life-long bliss?
Apparently not. That’s what’s so revealing about wireheading. Unlike food, drink or sex, the experience of pleasure itself exhibits no tolerance, even though our innumerable objects of desire certainly do so. Thus we can eventually get bored of anything – with a single exception. Stimulation of the pleasure-centres of the brain never palls.
– David Pearce, Wirehead Hedonism versus Paradise Engineering
Why can’t we all be happy all the time? The short answer is: because the negative feedback dynamics of our reward circuitry won’t allow us to. For deep evolutionary reasons, we’ve inherited an emotional system prone to generate very negative states of consciousness. Evolutionarily adaptive mental states such as jealousy, hatred, anxiety, despair, and frustration could be like our cravings for sugar and fat – an artifact of our calorie-deficient past. Today, with the abundance of food and positive-sum opportunities, it makes sense to rethink the necessity of preserving our ability to experience suffering. Critically, direct electrical stimulation to our pleasure centers shows that lifelong bliss is physiologically possible. Meaning, that the brain’s endless capacity to get bored of anything is not a match against electric (as opposed to chemical) inputs.
The question then becomes – how do we stay happy without compromising other things of value? This article discusses some of the main pitfalls of life-long bliss. Namely: (1) that trying to achieve it while ignoring negative feedback backfires, (2) that it makes you prone to get stuck in small behavioral attractors, and (3) that hyper-motivation could empower entities who do not care about the wellbeing of other sentient beings.
The article proposes a number of potential solutions to these pitfalls. In particular, rather than wireheading by reducing the development of physiological tolerance to specific forms of bliss (which leads to the problems outlined), we could instead wirehead in such a way that every type of bliss leads to transient habituation while at the same time making it easier to experience different types of bliss. Thus, a person who has wireheaded in this way would constantly experience extremely blissful states, but constantly change which type of bliss is being experienced. From hyper-motivated focused states, to hyper-relaxed restful states, to hyper-creative high-energy states, the person in question would maintain the ability to interact with the world productively without ever having to experience a negative state.
How do we know that other people are conscious? Is there any undeniable evidence against solipsism? These questions have been asked for ages, but convincing solutions are lacking. If indeed other brains are haunted with inner experiences then in some sense we all are profoundly ignorant of that aspect of the world. We can speculate about the experiences of other sentient beings, but what do we really know about them? How can we definitively verify that someone indeed has a rich subjective experience independently of you?
Well, first consider that there already exists a sort of proof of concept for mindmelding in the form of the thalamic bridge between the brains of the Hogan sisters. According to some reports, they are able to feel each other’s sensations:
Tatiana hates ketchup; Krista loves it. Krista scrapes the breading off her chicken McNuggets; Tatiana likes the breading. Specialists speculate that somehow they can selectively block out sensory input from the other. Ketchup, however, is different: Tatiana hates it so much she screams if Krista eats it.
– Denise Ryan, Through Her Sister’s Eyes
Now, exactly what the boundary around each of their experiences is remains a mystery. But for the sake of the argument, let us assume that someday we create a reversible inter-thalamic bridge that we can use to temporarily become one with one another. As pointed out by some philosophers, this alone would not be proof that the person one is mindmelding with is independently conscious. It would certainly be evidence, but can we do better? This article provides an additional piece of the puzzle. Namely, it discusses the possibility of using puzzles that can only be solved by making comparisons between the qualia values of our experience. The precise protocol for the experiment is a bit subtle, so I won’t reproduce it here – read the article and watch the video for a detailed explanation.
This is, in my opinion, the best article I have written up to now. Why? In brief: because it advances the completely new hypothesis that a large part of what makes the state of consciousness induced by N,N-DMT (aka. “the spirit molecule”) so mysterious, confusing, and bewilderingly bizarre can be explained in terms of a change in the geometry of the phenomenal space one experiences during the trip. The article goes beyond merely making this claim, provides a number of reasons why, and discusses plausible mechanisms of action for this effect. Of note is the fact that the symmetrical texture repetition one sees on a high enough dose of DMT is non-Euclidean. Indeed, the symmetries experienced on that state are hyperbolic in a strict mathematical sense. So unlike trip reports from people who merely say e.g. “I saw a lot of symmetries!” this article zooms in on precisely which symmetries arise, and infers that they imply a change of curvature that is not possible in normal everyday states of consciousness.
Most people who try DMT come back to consensus reality with new and outlandish beliefs about higher dimensions, otherworldly entities, telepathy, and even life after death. Because most people who are willing to talk about their experiences- and the interpretation they have about those experiences- do not make sense to the scientifically-educated, serious thinkers tend to dismiss the significance of this state. But with the analytic angle of this article, we can actually start making solid progress on characterizing the properties of the surreal states of consciousness found in the DMT-verse.
When it comes to psychedelic theory, at Qualia Computing we focus on the phenomenal character of the experience rather than on its intentional content. You see, it is far less useful to know that you saw a dragon capable of barfing liquid nitrogen during your trip than it is to point out that its body was covered with a patterning with a wallpaper symmetry group of the *632 type. It is this level of attention to detail in phenomenology that actually advances our understanding.
The article concludes with a bold prediction: that if indeed N,N-DMT allows you to experience hyperbolically-curved phenomenal space, then a lot of future breakthroughs in pure math will be arrived at by serious mathematicians exploring such altered states in a systematic way. I stand by this prediction.
I will also link to some honorary mentions – There are three high-quality trip reports submitted by Qualia Computing readers that showcase the usefulness of being acquainted with the QC memeplex in order to rationally make sense of otherwise seemingly ineffable experiences (personally I found it really interesting to see Qualia Computing concepts be fire-tested in real life by being applied to the alien state-spaces of consciousness these readers experienced). The trip reports are for LSD, 2C-B, and 4-AcO-DMT.
Another set of related articles important to highlight involves one-off descriptions of research leads that could have huge collective hedonic payoffs if carried out. That is, there are many low-hanging fruit research projects that could lead to revolutionary interventions to reduce suffering and enhance our quality of life. These are:
- Anti-Tolerance Drugs (Surprisingly, substances exist that, when taken in conjunction with euphoric drugs, prevent the development of tolerance, and this could have game-changing implications for the treatment of chronic pain and addiction)
- Cooling It Down To Partying It Up (If the reason why MDMA causes long-term neurological damage is due to the way it overheats the brain, then bracelets designed to cool your blood really quickly could allow people to take MDMA sustainably for decades without getting hurt)
- Low-Dose Ibogaine for Hedonic Tone Augmentation (According to some published reports and anecdotal data, microdosing ibogaine gives rise to an increased hedonic baseline for several days that does not lead to a comedown, possibly by up-regulating mu-opioid receptors – if true this could revolutionize the treatment of depression)
- Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be? (I highlight that anecdotal evidence indicates that sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT can abort cluster headaches within seconds, which are some of the most painful experiences that humans have and therefore are an ethical priority)
- Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain (Along the lines of the previous article, one of the most painful experiences people tend to have in their lifetime is that of kidney stones. So even if there is a small probability that this intervention actually works, there is a strong utilitarian case to research this lead because, if successful, it would lead to a very cheap and widely available method to greatly diminish this very common (~10% lifetime prevalence) form of intense suffering).
- Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project (A low-hanging fruit to make a lot of people happy and prevent a ton of suffering would be to build models that predict hedonic set-point based on genetic makeup to be used for genetic preimplantation diagnosis, something that can already be done with the data available to services like 23andMe).
And finally, I will also point you to Qualia Computing media appearances, in case you would like to consume Qualia Computing content with the aid of auditory and/or visual qualia.
* I arrived at this particular ranking by sorting all the articles by a weighted sum of (a) the number of genuinely new ideas presented (which Google searches reveal they have never previously been discussed anywhere, including academia, internet forums, popular culture, etc.), (b) how happy it makes me feel that I wrote and published the article, and (c) the logarithm of the number of views of the article to date.