In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Deckard turns to his Penfield Mood Organ, a bedside digital device, to punch in a number and request a better mood. His wife tells him she opts to plunge into existential despair at least twice a month, just for variety’s sake, which baffles him.
PCMag was at the Decentralized A.I. Summit in San Francisco recently and sat down with scientist Andres Gomez Emilsson, who is building something similar to the Penfield Mood Organ. Once he’s done with the “qualia computing,” or the mathematical calculations to define bliss, that is.
If you think this is too “out there,” many VIPs are looking seriously at the consciousness space. Chinese investor Bo Shao committed $100 million to research efforts via his foundation, Elon Musk’s Neuralink aims to link brains to computers, Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections is causing consternation in the world of Big Pharma, and scientists have just identified a physical source of anxiety in the brain.
So Emilsson is in good company; here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Andres, we’re familiar with quantum computing, but please define qualia computing?
Qualia computing is the use of the raw subjective quality of experience in order to process information. Let’s take the case of synesthesia as an example. People might say synesthetes have “crossed senses” in that they see a color but might experience a sound. I would instead say we are all synesthetic. It’s just that some kinds of synesthesia are more computationally efficient than others at processing the information in our environment. We see colors when we open our eyes because color qualia is better at representing that kind of input. That is qualia computing.
Interesting. So the computing of sense perception? In that you’d like to compute each mood—and then switch it on—like the Penfield Mood Organ?
That’s exactly what I’m working on at our Qualia Research Institute. We expect progress systematizing qualia can and will lead to rapid progress on effective cures for chronic pain and depression.
You incubated many of your ideas while studying for your degree at Stanford in the Symbolic Systems Program. What made you choose that course, then move onto computational psychology for your masters?
Everywhere I applied to had a cognitive science degree, but Stanford went further, with a lot of emphasis on philosophy and systems, with the human-in-the-loop aspect of artificial intelligence.
Plus, not that anyone has solved it, but it appears that Stanford is willing to at least address the “hard problem of consciousness.”
That is true. Indeed they even have a Center for the Explanation of Consciousness, led by Paul Skokowski and John Perry, who I deeply respect.
On your site you’ve come up with a working theory already. Care to share it?
In brief, I don’t believe epiphenomenalism—defined at Stanford as “mental events are caused purely by physical events inside the brain [and] mental events play no causal role”—is true. Qualia, it turns out, must have a causally relevant role in forward-propelled organisms. Otherwise, natural selection would have had no way of recruiting it.
In that we have a brain—inside our heads, but “mind” is something else—perhaps shared as a collective consciousness? And definitely affected by more than neural firing, bringing in your idea of qualia that can be “computed”?
Yes. I propose that the reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection is found in the tremendous computational power that it affords to the real-time world simulations it instantiates through the use of the nervous system.
The way the brain and/or “mind” is a predictive engine, creating simulations of what it expects, in order to let us survive our quotidien existence without being freaked out all the time?
Once we recognize the computational role of consciousness, and the causal network that links it to behavior, a new era will begin. We will (1) characterize the various values of qualia in terms of their computational properties, and (2) systematically explore the state-space of possible conscious experiences.
On a personal note, do you meditate? Do you abstain from all stimulants in order to reach the hedonistic imperative, as your mentor David Pearce calls the push to abolish all suffering in sentient beings? Or, in the absence of a mathematical calculation for bliss, are you chemically altering your brain?
I’m pretty liberal in my methods to change the way I feel. I meditate, I practice both “focused” and “loving kindness” meditation, both make me feel good.
You’ve spoken openly about experimenting with tCDS (transcranial direct stimulation) in the past. Are you a confirmed wirehead (with a permanent Neuropace style implant, such as we covered at UCLA)?
I have done tCDS. But no, I’m not a wirehead, because I’m not permanently altered in order to be happy all the time.
Back to the Penfield.
I see it as a dashboard which can allow you to access any states. It would be a chemical-electrical interface into the brain.
You’re trying to get there before Elon Musk’s Neuralink?
I’d like to go further than just connecting humans to computers. I want to allow people to dial in sound qualia, color qualia, qualia we haven’t discovered yet, etc. but most of all: allow people to dial different kinds of bliss. At QRI we’re working on the scientific foundations, developing it on a concrete level. What equations can we use to control valence—the pleasure/pain axis?
Let’s delve into the biology and genomics behind your theories.
OK. Well, some people are lucky to be born hyperthymic and enjoy life the majority of the time. Genetically determined pain thresholds do not only influence how one responds to physical discomfort, but also predict the size of one’s social network (presumably by making social rejection less taxing). For example, the SCN9A gene has an effect on your pain threshold and certain variants contribute to your ability to withstand depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. Certain variants of it lead you to have fewer or lower quality of opioid receptors, which can have terrible consequences for your mood and mental health, plus we don’t have a non-genetic way of treating such a problem.
Are you talking to healthcare professionals already about your ideas?
We intend to, because we think what we’re doing is a better solution than what’s out there. There has to be a better way of treating suffering in all its guises: anxiety, depression, chronic pain, etc. We now know, due to DNA sequencing, that our genetic makeup has a profound effect on our hedonic set point and range of moods. What I’m building is a logical extension of that.
How does your day job as a data science engineer at Ultimate Software intersect with your ideas on qualia computing?
There is a relationship. My job is to predict emotion through the usage of the HR software, to ascertain whether people will be happy, or are happy, in their work. So it’s pursuing similar lines. They hired me because, earlier—from 2012 to 2014—I worked on modeling the dynamics of emotion transitions, predicting future emotions based on a sequence of previous ones. I did this first as part of a research project for a company I worked for, called Kanjoya, and it then transformed into the topic of my masters’ thesis at Stanford.
Briefly, how did your modeling work?
I analyzed the transition probability between each ordered pair of emotions for different intervals of time, compressing it into a score that describes the overall flow, resulting in a flow graph that we can analyze with tools from graph theory. I explored many ways of clustering this graph and ultimately settled on a method that generated the best predictive power on a model to forecast future emotions. In turn, this revealed interesting patterns about people’s emotional dynamics, which informs our theoretical work on wireheading.
Finally, you often quote Alan Watts, the 1960s-era Zen philosopher, whom Spike Jonze also re-animated as an A.I. avatar (voiced by Brian Cox) in the movie Her.
Yes, Watts would agree with the concept of open individualism, that we are all part of a collective consciousness, and this interests me deeply. But what I didn’t like about him, is he didn’t see the world needs to change. “Reality is only a Rorschach inkblot, you know”, he said, but “Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize they are one and the same process as the universe.” This I believe, too, which is why I’m working in this field.
Sign us up to be a beta tester when your take on the Penfield Mood Organ is in trial.
I will indeed. Until then, be well.