II: Donating to QRI Today is Like Buying Bitcoin in 2010
Published January 5, 02020
[This is Part II of a two-part post. Start here. Note: I interned for 3 weeks with Qualia Research Institute in the summer of 2019. Also, this piece has already inspired at least one person to donate!]
On May 22, 2010, one bitcoin was worth approximately $0.025. 'Laszlo Hanyecz (indirectly) buys Papa John's pizza for 10,000 coins (25 USD – Bitcoin value was 0.0025 cents for 1 coin)' [en.bitcoinwiki.org (a)] Despite bitcoin’s volatility, since July 20, 2017, a single bitcoin has always been worth at least $2500 (a). For now, it's safe to say that if you bought bitcoin in early 2010, your return on investment (ROI) would be at least 100,000x.
I believe that donating today to Qualia Research Institute – a non-profit attempting to build a new and rigorous science of consciousness – is like buying bitcoin back in 2010. But instead of ROI measured by economic profit, it's ROI measured by altruistic impact and goodness for the world, which should be the criteria you use to evaluate charities.
Buying bitcoin back in 2010 was a high-risk endeavor. Even if you deeply believed that blockchain offered tremendous value to society and that bitcoin would one day be the world's primary currency, there were still many ways that your investment could have failed.
- The mass adoption of cryptocurrency might not have occurred in your lifetime.
- Blockchain could have been the right idea, but bitcoin might have quickly been discarded for some other more successful cryptocurrency.
- Bitcoin might have taken off, but you could have forgotten your private keys, got locked out of your wallet, and lost your immense wealth.
I can list many more failure modes. Regardless, the risk-profile for bitcoin was pretty much that in the worst case, you completely lose your money, and in the best case (which was plausible enough to happen), your money grows by at least 100,000x if bitcoin becomes a major global currency. For comparison, you wouldn’t realistically be able to say that the same potential upside existed for investing in a stock like Starbucks in 2010 (the market cap for Starbucks in January of 2010 was about $17 billion, and growing by 100,000x would mean reaching a market cap of $1.7 quadrillion). Someday, bitcoin may still lose all its value. However, even if it does, there have been and will inevitably be applications of blockchain that produce enormous amounts of wealth.
I think donating to Qualia Research Institute (QRI) has a similar risk profile. In the worst case, your money might not do much at all. But in the best case, the upside of donating to QRI is orders of magnitude better (perhaps 100,000x better) for the future than doing anything else with that money (including donating to other charities). One disanalogy between QRI and bitcoin though is that it still would have been impactful to buy a small amount of bitcoin in 2010 (e.g. $5 worth), but making a $5 donation to QRI today probably wouldn't do much
100,000x better? Is that really your claim?
It is my claim. To riff off the Starbucks stock versus bitcoin comparison, it’s the difference between choosing to fund research to fight prostate cancer, which affects about 1 million people each year (a), versus choosing to fund research to find a way to eliminate involuntary pain and suffering (whether that’s physical pain from a broken bone, kidney stone, migraine, or emotional pain from extreme trauma, depression, anxiety), which currently occurs at some point throughout life in each of the 7 billion conscious people on this planet. Rough estimates suggest that there are over 10 trillion vertebrates on this planet (a), potentially all conscious too. The amount of people and animals that would be positively affected by innovations made from discoveries in consciousness research is truly orders of magnitude larger than the amount of people or animals that would be affected by any other research area. The upside is huge. (And I’m not suggesting that it wouldn’t be wonderful if we advanced our treatments for prostate cancer. I am simply saying that in the best case for prostate cancer research – finding a cure – we would only affect at most 1 million people each year, which is a lot, but still less than 70,000x the number of humans that would be affected by a cure for involuntary pain and suffering).
Whether you realize this or not, all anyone really cares about is consciousness. Unfortunately, barely anyone in the world is actively trying to develop a rigorous, scientific theory of consciousness.
However, the team at Qualia Research Institute is. Their mission is "to make testable predictions that allow the creation of technologies which empower all conscious beings to have meaningful, joyous lives free from unnecessary suffering and pain."
Imagine technologies that allow people to precisely control their own conscious experiences. No more depression, PTSD, unwanted anxiety, migraines, severe physical pain. The list goes on.
But do you really believe that we'll have some magical Well, it wouldn’t be magical in the traditional sense, but it would be magical in the Arthur C. Clarke sense: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” technology that allows us to precisely control our conscious experiences?
Why not? We already have extremely coarse-grained technology to control our conscious experiences. Alcohol, caffeine, marijuana. When you engage with any of these, they each do something different to your conscious experience, whether that's reducing anxiety, increasing attention, or having some other effect. But they are very crude technologies. Today, you can't choose to feel the effects of marijuana for only 3 minutes and then return to sobriety. If you get high, it lasts for many hours, and you can't do much about that.
What would the final technology that QRI builds look like? Is it some helmet you wear? Or pill you take? Or brain implant? Or new psychotherapy method?
Actually, QRI is pretty agnostic as to how the technology it develops will look like. QRI is currently engineering non-invasive neurotechnology, but in the end, it's hard to predict what the technology will exactly be. In fact, some other organization or company may end up building the technology that QRI envisions based on the fundamental research and theory of consciousness that QRI pioneers.
I'd compare Qualia Research Institute to the Bell Labs of the 20th century. However, instead of focusing on research in telecommunications and information technology, Qualia Research Institute focuses on research in consciousness and neuroscience. When Bell Labs first began, the researchers and funders had a strong conviction that progress could be made in the fields of telecommunication and IT, and they ended up inventing radio astronomy, lasers, information theory, the transistor, Unix, C, and C++. Computers as we know them would not be possible without all of the discoveries made by Bell Labs.
However, if you tried to convince a random person in the early 1900s to fund researchers studying information technology by telling them that it would lead to computers with all the incredible applications we know about today, they would probably think you're crazy. Most people had no conception of what a computer was at all back then. So how could they possibly take your proposal seriously?
But that's essentially the line of reasoning I'm using now to convince you that funding QRI is highly valuable. The research that QRI conducts will one day lead us to technologies that allow us to navigate our conscious experiences in the most spectacular, beautiful ways, free from involuntary pain and suffering.
Could someone use the same line of reasoning to suggest that perpetual motion machines would be highly valuable and therefore we should invest in research into their feasibility and possible implementations? They could, but the first law and second law of thermodynamics prohibit the existence of perpetual motion machines. The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Conservation of Energy, The Laws of Thermodynamics And each of those laws have strong bodies of empirical evidence that support them. So, if you were to argue that we should invest in research to develop perpetual motion machines, you would first have to provide a strong argument for why both those physical laws are incorrect.
As for the technology that QRI proposes, there is currently no evidence that high-precision control over our own conscious experiences is impossible. On the contrary, the existence of every conscious-altering substance we have discovered along with the ability to alter people’s conscious experiences through brain stimulation (a) provide solid evidence that this technology is in fact possible.
I can't promise you that this technology will be created in the next ten years, but I do sincerely believe that out of all the organizations on the entire planet today, QRI is pushing the field of consciousness research more than any other. Since their founding, they have invented a novel method to calculate emotional valence from fMRI data (a), described a quantitative theory to describe pleasure and pain, the Symmetry Theory of Valence (a), and have used mathematics to explain the phenomenal qualities of altered states of consciousness (a), just to name a few of their core contributions to consciousness research.
If you donate to QRI today, your money will go toward supporting world-class researchers and funding neuroscience experiments. From QRI’s current research agenda (a), some of their highest priority projects include: empirical validation of the Symmetry Theory of Valence, researching cost-effective methods to prevent very negative valence states (cluster headaches, kidney stones, etc.), and finding ways to sustainably increase people’s baseline hedonic tone.
The researchers at QRI think and write about testable theories of consciousness (a), actively develop software and hardware to test experimental predictions about consciousness QRI’s software and hardware projects are currently not public. , collaborate with researchers at academic institutions to analyze brain-imaging studies QRI’s academic collaborations are currently not public. , collect data (a) about intensely painful, pleasurable, and exotic states of consciousness through observational studies, and much more.
I’ll be donating at least 10% of my upcoming summer 2020 salary to Qualia Research Institute. If you also want to take a bet on making the future 100,000x better than it otherwise would be, you should highly consider donating to Qualia Research Institute (a) too. And if you are thinking about it, but aren’t completely sure, please reach out at azuckerman at college dot harvard dot edu! I’m happy to answer any and all questions you have about QRI and consciousness. Returns like this don’t come around too often.
Thank you Milan Griffes and Michael Johnson for reviewing drafts of this piece.