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Have you encountered the idea of qualia formalism? At QRI, we believe that the quantity of valence / happiness in a single moment of experience is a precise and objective property of that moment of experience. Mike Johnson’s Principia Qualia lays the groundwork for this thesis.

This was a really great summary and I know I’ll be coming back to this post multiple times in the future. Thank you so much for writing it up, Peter!

Hi Question Mark. While Nuño evaluated many longtermist orgs in that post, he didn’t actually evaluate QRI. Here’s the full quote: “Below is a list of perhaps notable organizations which I could have evaluated but didn't. […] Qualia Research Institute. Its pathway to impact appears implausible and overly ambitious.” It’s unfortunate that no explanation is actually given for why the view is held. The name of any longtermist org could have replaced QRI’s name and the statement would sound exactly the same.

QRI’s path to impact has three steps. Step 1: understand what things are conscious and how to measure and quantify valence (how good or bad an experience feels). Fortunately, we’re in a great position to make progress. Michael Johnson’s Principia Qualia breaks down the problem of consciousness into eight clear sub-problems and lays out a testable theory for what valence is. You can read about the progress made since the theory was presented here.

After we can measure valence, step 2 is to do just that in humans, animals, and anything we suspect is conscious. We'll do it in a variety of situations and conditions. We’d confirm whether valence follows a log scale, as Andrés Gomez Emilsson has suggested. All this data will make it easier to make economic decisions, allocate capital, and do effective altruism. It’ll also let us learn what the situation is with the quintillions of organisms on the planet and come up with a triage plan to help. For more on this topic, see Johnson’s “Effective Altruism, and building a better QALY."

Step 3: reduce suffering, increase baseline well-being, reach new heights of happiness. Solving valence measurement will probably yield insight into how to take a suffering mind and nudge it toward something better. We also take inspiration from the quote: ‘Thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine to thermodynamics.’ So we’ll be working on how to measure valence (step 1) and how to reliably create positive valence (step 3) at the same time. If AGI is involved in creating an awesome future, chances are it’s because we aligned its values to care about valence too. Johnson wrote about this in more detail here. That’s the path to impact. If it seems implausible, I’m curious what step doesn’t make sense. As for it being overly ambitious, well, that’s only a problem if the project isn’t able to be accomplished. It definitely will be hard to accomplish without money, but we’re working on it anyway.

Answer by andzuck6

What a wonderful position to find yourself in! If you are considering donating some of the gift today, Qualia Research Institute (QRI) would be a great place to donate as we currently have a 1:1 matching grant out for $200,000.

Full disclosure, I am the Executive Director of QRI.

You can 2x your donation's impact and completing this match will allow us to make our first large hire outside of the core founding team.

Our main goal is to understand and quantify the most important aspects of conscious experience, in particular, emotional valence (how good or bad experiences feel). Some large impacts of this would include:

  • Helping find first-principles solutions to hard-to-treat mental health & chronic pain conditions.
  • Creating 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.
  • Helping more accurately measure the quality of life of animals and non-linguistic humans.

You can read more about this history of QRI and our 2021 Strategy here.

Thanks for putting this all on my radar! I will be catching up on your posts and talk. Glad to see that you have already presented a lot of this in an EA context :)

Was wondering if you can explain more about the reasoning for funding Connor Flexman. Right now, the write-up doesn't explain much and makes me curious what "independent research" means. Also would be interested in learning what past projects Connor has worked on that led to this grant.