State of the Qualia, Fall 2019

Qualia Research Institute’s inaugural newsletter.


What is QRI trying to do?

Our long-term vision is to end suffering. To destroy hell, and to build tools for exploring all the bright futures which come after. To take the Buddha’s vision of 2600 years ago, update it with advanced theory and technology, and make it real for all creatures.

Our medium-term goal is to build a ‘full-stack’ approach to the mind and brain, centered around emotional valence. Critically, better philosophy should lead to better neuroscience, and better neuroscience should lead to better neurotechnology. We’re skeptical of any philosophical approaches that don’t try to “pay rent” by building empirically useful things.

Our short-term deliverables are to refine our tools for evaluating EEG readings of emotionally-intense states (e.g. 5-MeO-DMT), build a hardware platform for non-invasive precision brain stimulation, and release an updated version of our full-stack theory of brain dynamics (‘neural annealing’).

We think we’re on track for all of these goals. On one level this is a huge claim- but as Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” We think we have that lever, and we’re building a place to stand.


Progress to date

Philosophy: over the course of the last few years, we’ve imported and integrated many key insights from our research lineages – in aggregate we believe these form the world’s best map of how to not get confused in navigating the formalization of consciousness. Our paradigm (laid out in Principia Qualia) builds on top of these lineages, and our core philosophical result is the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), an information-theoretic approach towards understanding how pleasant an experience is. (STV is important because it’s such a crisp and theoretically significant hypothesis: if it’s right, and we can prove it, the world will shift overnight.) We’ve also done significant philosophical research on the phenomenological nature of time, DMT states, and the logarithmic nature of pain and pleasure, to pick a few topics. Read more.

Neuroscience: Over the past two years we’ve put together a substantial push into neuroscience, which is showing increasing traction. Scott Alexander recently noticed how we actually beat Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston (the world’s most-influential neuroscientist!) to the punch with an annealing model for psychedelics; this also forms the basis for (we believe) the world’s best neuroscience paradigm for explaining the mechanisms and effects of meditation and was mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s newsletter. We’re also a center of gravity (along with Selen Atasoy, its creator) for phenomenological interpretation of the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) paradigm.

Organization: This year saw QRI run a successful summer internship program in San Francisco with 3 superstar interns, Andrew and Kenneth from Harvard and Quintin from Washington University. More recently, we spent a month in Boston on a ‘work sprint’, and ended up giving 3 talks at Harvard and 1 at MIT, with plans to do more at various Ivies this fall. One of the most fun outputs of this summer was Zuck’s QRI explainer video (4.5 minutes).

I’m ridiculously proud of everything we’ve accomplished — a few years ago, QRI was mostly a promissory note that a formalist approach to consciousness could produce something interesting. Today, I can say with a straight face that QRI is one of the premier consciousness research centers in the world, releasing top-tier cross-disciplinary research every few months.


What’s next

Our current push is centered on empirically validating the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) and integrating it with our neuroscience stack. This involves releasing an updated version of our ‘neural annealing’ neuroscience paradigm, building a hardware platform for patterned stimulation, and refining our “CDNS” algorithm to work with EEG, with an eye toward using 5-MeO-DMT EEG data to evaluate STV. It looks like 2020 will be a breakout year for us.


What we need

Frankly speaking, we need your support. Building things is hard, and what we’re doing has never been done before. Our core bottlenecks are moneypeople, and executive function.

Money: so far, QRI has been mostly self-funded from the co-founders’ personal savings. I’m proud of everyone’s commitment, but this is unsustainable, especially as we attempt more ambitious projects. At this point, we have enough results to make a firm case that supporting QRI is likely to produce an awesome amount of value for the world, potentially literally the most leveraged philanthropic effort existing today. Frankly speaking the future we’re building won’t get built if we don’t secure funding, and I ask for your help and generosity. You can donate here. (Thank you to our key supporters this year! Your efforts allowed us to onboard three amazing interns and will support building things this Fall.)

People: high-quality organizations are incredibly hungry for high-quality people. QRI is no exception. If you think you have something to offer, please get in touch about collaboration, volunteering, research, and so on. Importantly, we don’t just need researchers: we’re hungry for operations people, and looking for help with getting on podcasts (speaking with Sam Harris and Joe Rogan would both be big wins!), organizing or getting speaking engagements (especially in the Bay), and even small, fun projects like making a series of QRI meme t-shirts.

Executive function: there’s a natural tension between research and organization-building. Paul Graham talks about this in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule; research needs big uninterrupted chunks of time, whereas management and outreach involves lots of small tasks. Speaking personally, I struggle with keeping up with all our inquiries while also doing ‘deep work’. I would offer three thoughts to potential volunteers:

  1. Please have patience if we don’t get back to you right away. We’re juggling as best we can!
  2. When possible, we absolutely love it when people can figure out their own way to help — I can think of few things more pleasant to see in my inbox than someone sharing a “by the way, I made this” link to e.g. a nice HTML version of Principia Qualia, an explainer video for various QRI concepts, a deep review of our experimental method, etc.
  3. One of the highest leverage ways to help is to build infrastructure for us. E.g., if you’re familiar with the main themes of our work and want to be a volunteer coordinator for us, that would be an amazing force-multiplier.

I am incredibly proud of what we’ve done so far, and incredibly excited about the future. We will need your help to build it.

All the best,

Michael Edward Johnson

Executive Director, Qualia Research Institute

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