Qualia Research Institute: History & 2021 Strategy

Key Points

  • Theoretical & empirical work on emotional valence is Qualia Research Institute’s core research focus. At a high level, Qualia Research Institute (QRI) works to formulate universal theories of valence[1], test those theories experimentally, and build non-invasive neurotechnology that reliably produces large positive valence effects.

  • QRI has formed partnerships to work with clinical data from psychedelic studies at King’s College London, Imperial College London, and the National Institute of Mental Health of the Czech Republic.

  • QRI is collaborating with researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium to analyze electroencephalographic (EEG) data from jhana meditation sessions.

  • QRI fills an important niche in the consciousness research, psychedelic research[2], and Effective Altruist ecosystems.

  • On the present margin, QRI is more constrained by funding than by talent.

  • We’re confident that we could put $1.5M to good use over the next two years.

  • With further funding, QRI would pursue its research agenda and expand its team by hiring a signal processing engineer, a computational neuroscience PhD, and a software engineer.

  • QRI’s 2021 research agenda includes empirically exploring the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) on high-valence data sets, developing non-invasive neurotechnology that produces large positive valence effects, building out our psychophysics toolkit and using it to collect data, publishing open-source neuroimaging software, and investigating how to generalize the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) framework into a scale-free form.

  • You can donate to QRI on our website or reach out to Mackenzie Dion, Director of Operations & Development, at mackenzie@qualiaresearchinstitute.org

  • You can keep up with our research by subscribing to our newsletter or following us on Twitter

Why Does Qualia Research Institute Exist?

Isn’t it perplexing that we’re trying to reduce the amount of suffering and increase the amount of happiness in the world, yet we don’t have a precise definition for either suffering or happiness?

As a human collective, we want to create good futures. This encompasses helping humans have happier lives, preventing intense suffering wherever it may exist, creating safe AI, and improving animals’ lives too, both in farms and in the wild.

But what is happiness? And what is suffering?

Until we can talk about these things objectively, let alone measure and quantify them reliably, we’ll always be standing in murky water.[3]

The core question remains the same:

How do we objectively measure and quantify properties of conscious experience?

Qualia Research Institute’s Mission

Qualia Research Institute (QRI) is a non-profit research center operating outside of academia. We are a small team of independent researchers studying consciousness in a consistent, meaningful, and rigorous way.

Our goals are ambitious yet realistic:

  1. Develop a precise mathematical language for describing consciousness

  2. Understand the nature of emotional valence (pain and pleasure)

  3. Build technologies to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways, at scale

As far as we know, we are the first and only research group that uses a qualia formalist[4] approach to consciousness, cares about valence, and takes the phenomenology of altered states of consciousness seriously.[5]

How We Expect To Make Progress Toward Our Mission

Developing an accurate and precise ‘valence meter’ is one of QRI’s north stars. This goal is similar to (though distinct from) Integrated Information Theory researchers’ attempt to invent an accurate ‘consciousness meter’.

We intend to make progress towards this goal by generating theories of valence that are universal in their explanatory power, attempting to experimentally corroborate our theoretical models with state-of-the-art techniques in neuroscience, and building non-invasive neurotechnology that can reliably produce large positive effects based on our developing theory of valence.

In addition to our valence-specific research plans, we believe that mapping out exotic properties of consciousness will provide valuable clues about how consciousness fundamentally works. An analogy is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to pre-enlightenment scientists trying to understand energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while disregarding extreme boundary conditions like the sun, black holes, plasma, and superfluid helium. Ignoring these states may be equivalent to refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope.

Finally, we intend to become a hub for all types of high-valence biological data, including fMRI data from our academic partners, subjective reports of extremely blissful states, and genomic data of people who report a high degree of baseline happiness. Alongside this data collection, we aim to create an environment that fosters dialogue between researchers studying AI, neuroscience, meditation, and psychedelics.

QRI History & Past Work

Core Team Intro

The core QRI team now consists of:

Michael Edward Johnson—Co-Founder and Co-Director of Research at QRI. Mike is the author of Principia Qualia and blogs at opentheory.net.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson—Co-Founder and Co-Director of Research at QRI. Andrés has a Master’s Degree in Computational Psychology from Stanford, co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association, was first place winner of the Norway Math Olympiad, and blogs at qualiacomputing.com.

Andrew Zuckerman—Executive Director at QRI. Andrew studied computer science at Harvard, co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Science of Psychedelics Club, was a board member of Harvard College Effective Altruism, and founded the Harvard Giving Pledge.

Quintin Frerichs—Director of Engineering at QRI. Quintin graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied computer science and PNP (Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology) and worked as a network security engineer for a Seattle-based firm.

Mackenzie Dion—Director of Operations & Development at QRI. Mackenzie is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and senior at UNC where she studies Psychology and Neuroscience. Prior to QRI, Mackenzie worked for several startups and nonprofits in alternative proteins, including the Good Food Institute (GFI) and Aleph Farms.

Sean McGowan—Research and Development Coordinator at QRI. Sean is a recent graduate from Dartmouth College where he studied Cognitive Science and Mathematical Physics.

Timeline of QRI

Timeline of QRI including key works published.

For the full timeline breakdown, see Appendix A.

Board of Advisors

Our newly created Board of Advisors include: Wojciech Zaremba (co-founder of OpenAI), Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris (head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London), Scott Alexander (writer of Slate Star Codex and Astral Codex Ten), David Pearce (philosopher, author of The Hedonistic Imperative), and Dr. Shamil Chandaria (strategic advisor at DeepMind).

Strategic Advisors

Our current strategic advisors are Romeo Stevens (QRI co-founder), Milan Griffes (writer of Psychedelic Update and co-founder of Argo Health), and Trey Jennings (venture investor at Norwest Venture Partners).

How We’ve Used Money So Far

Since its inception in 2018, QRI has used approximately $125k total, or about $62.5k /​ year. That money has paid for Quintin’s full-time annual salary, a part-time salary for Sean, stipends for interns, prototyping equipment, software, and travel costs.

What We’ve Accomplished

QRI Is More Constrained by Funding Than by Talent

Today, QRI is not struggling to find research directions. We have a backlog of ideas, both theoretical and experimental, that we’d like to work on. We have been approached by multiple leading academics requesting to collaborate and we don’t have capacity to take on many of the opportunities we encounter. Inside our personal networks, there are talented engineers and data scientists that we would hire (and who have expressed mutual interest in working with us). All we need is the funding to do so.

What We Would Do With More Funding

Pay Our Existing Team

With additional funding, the first thing we’d do is begin paying core team members. These core roles are:

  • Executive Director: Andrew Zuckerman

  • Co-Director of Research: Andrés Gómez Emilsson

  • Co-Director of Research: Michael Edward Johnson

  • Director of Engineering: Quintin Frerichs

  • Operations, Development, and Research Coordination (1 FTE): Mackenzie Dion & Sean McGowan

Expand Our Team

We are confident that the following three roles would bring tremendous value to our research agenda:

  1. An engineer with a background in signal processing to continue developing our non-invasive neurotech which is already producing large effect sizes.

  2. An experienced computational neuroscientist (PhD or postdoc level) who can assist with foundational research and writing academic papers. This person will help us explore the technical implications of our ideas in greater depth and will accelerate our publication process.

  3. A software engineer with a strong mathematical background to continue to build out new research tools that we can use for experiments and data collection.

We have already identified candidates for these roles that we would like to hire.

Invest in Compute

Computing power is another core bottleneck that is slowing down our research. For example, in the past few months, several of our fMRI data analyses have each taken over 7 days to finish processing. With more funding, we would invest in compute to speed up this processing by 10x.

Physical Location

We’ve noticed that much of our best work occurs when we’re working together in the same physical location where information can flow freely from team member to team member. We are interested in setting up a physical location for the research team to work together (as the pandemic allows).

2021 Strategy

2021 Research Agenda

  • Our 2021 Research Agenda will focus on the following projects:

  • Empirically exploring the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) on high-valence MDMA data sets with in-house algorithms based on our CDNS framework

  • Developing non-invasive neurotechnology with a focus on reliably inducing positive valence and emotional processing

  • Publishing a research paper that argues for STV on theoretical and empirical grounds Releasing open-source neuroimaging analysis software and publishing corresponding research based on that software

  • Adding new tools to our Psychophysics Toolkit and getting institutional research board approval to begin collecting data from altered states of consciousness that involve perceptual changes

  • Figuring out how to generalize the CSHW framework into a scale-free form—building a model of scale-free resonance in the nervous system and how breakdowns in this system lead to various sensory, emotional, motivational, and hedonic problems

Significant Organizational Transformations

We will also be investing in important organizational upgrades. Quality research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and we know that a smoothly operating ecosystem is needed to create the conditions for doing good research.

Upgrading Organizational Capacity

We are implementing tighter feedback loops for team members, implementing work-tracking, task-management software, setting quarterly OKRs, creating onboarding material for new hires, and building better systems to track our monthly and yearly expenses.

Increasing Scientific Standards

We will continue to increase contact with outside researchers at academic institutions and neuroscience research centers, finding professional researchers that can review our methods. We will also release preprints of our research on sites like PsyArXiv.

Emphasizing Clarity

Inspired by Olah & Carter’s “Research Debt”, which describes the importance of research distillation, we will experiment with producing high-quality visualizations of our research to increase its legibility. We want to make it easy for busy researchers to understand our contributions and feel comfortable citing our work.

Building Professional QRI Publishing Pipeline

Some of our research won’t be written for academic publication, yet we want to make sure those pieces reach the right audiences. We are creating a professional publishing-first site to host our research. For these works, we will use internal feedback systems to ensure that this content also maintains high standards.

Create a Top-Down Hiring System

We are focusing on top-down hiring to continue to build out a strong research organization. In the past, we have received many requests from volunteers looking to help QRI. We will aim to sustain this organic interest through a newly created r/​QualiaResearch subreddit in addition to the Qualia Computing Networking Facebook group that has served as a hub in the past. We will also update our website to reflect the changes in our approach to volunteering. Once we have sufficient funding, we will advertise for new roles on our website, reach out to relevant candidates in our networks, and contact talented postdocs whom we would be excited to hire.

Why We Are a Nonprofit Research Group

Even though we are developing technology at QRI that could lead to for-profit spin-off companies, we believe that a for-profit structure does not provide the optimal incentives for our current work. We are interested in focusing on fundamental and foundational research without rushing to find product-market fit.

For similar reasons, QRI exists outside of the academy. Many research ideas that we explore come from new paradigms, and our current view is that academic pressures leave little room to fruitfully engage with this territory. For example, we don’t expect to publish high-quality trip reports in academic journals, yet we believe that such reports are important puzzle pieces for reverse-engineering consciousness.

Some of our research will be publishable in academic journals, and we are excited to begin doing this. In the future, we hope that our neurotechnology research leads to practical, commercializable treatments. But right now, a non-profit structure is what makes the most sense for what Qualia Research Institute is trying to accomplish.

Fundraising Goals

We are currently raising $1.5 million USD to support our existing team and make the three hires discussed above: a signal processing engineer, a computational neuroscientist, and a software engineer. Combined with our current reserves, raising this amount would give us 2 years of financial runway to pursue our research agenda and experiment with incubating for-profit initiatives.

Breakdown of Budget

Much More Room to Grow

While the budget we’re presenting here would pay for a baseline Qualia Research Institute, we believe that we could put an influx of additional funding to great use over the next five years. Consciousness research is still an extremely neglected cause area, and we have ideas for developing this discipline with more engineers, neuroscientists, physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians. Some of these visions have been outlined in Emilsson’s “The Super-Shulgin Academy: A Singularity I Can Believe In” and “Peaceful Qualia: The Manhattan Project of Consciousness”.

The Importance of Understanding Valence

Even though the many practical outcomes of successful consciousness research weren’t discussed in detail in this piece, it is important to stress the incredible value that would come from a mechanistic understanding of valence.

In line with our goals to reduce suffering, improve baseline well-being, and reach new heights of bliss, a full understanding of valence would:

  1. Help us find first-principles solutions to hard-to-treat mental health & chronic pain conditions.

  2. Allow us to build better neurotechnology by precisely articulating the brain states we would like to target.

  3. Create more rigorous measures of philanthropic & economic utility and upgrade imperfect measures of well-being such as the QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year), which could drastically improve economic policymaking and the efficiency of our resource allocation.

  4. Help us more accurately measure the quality of life of animals and non-linguistic humans

  5. Improve social coordination by helping people operate from the same basic understanding of what is real and what is valuable.

  6. In the field of AI alignment – make progress on the value-loading problem (what values we should instill into an artificial general intelligence).

  7. Ensure that future neurotechnology is safe and doesn’t induce negative experiences in the short or long-term, degrades cognition or rationality, or makes people more uncaring.

How to Donate to QRI

If you are interested in supporting Qualia Research Institute, you can donate to us here. For larger donations, please reach out to Mackenzie Dion, Director of Operations & Development, at mackenzie@qualiaresearchinstitute.org. We have a slide deck that we are happy to share by request.

Additional Gratitude

Although their names weren’t directly included in this announcement, QRI would not be what it is today if not for the following people. Thank you for all for your support: Margareta Wassinge, Anders Amelin, Winslow Strong, Lawrence Wu, Patrick Taylor, Kenneth Shinozuka, Hunter Meyer, Elin Ahlstrand, Wendi Yan, Marcin Kowrygo, Ross Tieman, Jeremy Hadfield, Bar Lehman, Kushagra Sharma, Tanvi Antoo, Jasmine Wang, Mira Guetzow, Benjamin Martens, Alex Zhao, Robin Goins, Boian Etropolski, and Bence Vass. Thank you to all of our past donors. Thank you to all of our other supporters, both in-person and online. Thank you Rethink Priorities for your 2020 Impact and 2021 Strategy which helped inspire this piece. And thank you Quintin, Mackenzie, Mike, Sean, Andrés, Milan, and Daniel Segal for feedback on drafts of this announcement.

Appendix A: Timeline of QRI

2015-2018: Andrés Gómez Emilsson independently writes about consciousness on his blog Qualia Computing

2016 − 2018: Mike Johnson independently writes about consciousness on his blog Opentheory.net

2017: Romeo Stevens joins Mike and Andrés to help advance their research

December 2018: Romeo, Mike, and Andrés incorporate QRI as a 501c(3) non-profit

May 2019: QRI holds its first internship with three interns (Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, and Kenneth Shinozuka)

July 2019: Quintin joins QRI full-time as the first employee

January 2020: QRI hosts a small fundraiser to keep Quintin on salary, Sean McGowan volunteers to help set up the fundraising event

April-May, May-July 2020: Andrew helps QRI organize two ‘work-sprint’ internships with 15 interns working on technical, content, and organizational projects

August—November 2020: Andrew, Sean, and Mackenzie Dion (a 2020 summer intern) continue to work part-time for QRI

December 2020: Andrew transitions to Executive Director, QRI builds a Board of Advisors and adds Strategic Advisors, Romeo transitions to Strategic Advisor

Appendix B: How Our Research Interfaces with Psychedelic Research

We believe that our work will help make psychedelic science more rigorous, explain why certain substances are effective or ineffective, help lower the dose of particular drugs like MDMA and ketamine (which are neurotoxic and organ toxic, respectively) while maintaining their intended effect, create tools that help clinicians and researchers analyze and monitor psychedelic experiences in real-time, and improve the drug development process.

  1. Universal meaning that the theory retains its explanatory power no matter where we are in the universe and no matter what brain architecture an organism has. ↩︎

  2. See Appendix B. ↩︎

  3. Mike Johnson, co-founder of Qualia Research Institute, wrote about this dilemma back in 2015 in “Effective Altruism, and building a better QALY” and we’re excited to see Rethink Priorities pick up the baton in their recent exploration for alternatives to QALYs and DALYs. Yet even these upgraded metrics don’t measure the ground-truth of subjective experience itself. They also don’t comment on the experiences of animals and non-communicative conscious beings. ↩︎

  4. Qualia formalism is the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. ↩︎

  5. Other labs do focus on some of these (like Tononi’s lab taking qualia formalism seriously), but to our knowledge, none care about all three. ↩︎