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

Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be?

The Qualia Research Institute hosted an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. Here is how the event was advertised:

Description

Event NameQRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
  1. Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
  2. Most fun to think about
  3. Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).

*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.

Winners

With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:

For (1) two presenters tied in first place:

– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at https://enthea.net.

For (2) the winner was:

– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.

For (3) the winner was:

– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.

For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
Open Individualism as a new foundation for ethics
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)

Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):

  1. Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
  2. Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
  3. Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).

In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.

For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.

And finally, (3) was recently argued in a Qualia Computing article: Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project. This may very well be a defensible Cause X on the basis that building such a model is already possible with the data available to commercial DNA testing companies like 23andMe, and that it might course-correct the reproductive strategy of millions of prospective parents within a few years, preventing untold amounts of suffering at a relatively small cost.