Hello my children!
Hello my sons!
Hello my daughters!
Hello my brothers and sisters!
I’m here to tell you that the world’s last unpleasant experience…
Will be a precisely dateable event!
Yes! It will happen in our lifetimes if we commit all of our energy today…
To the task of Paradise Engineering!
– Yacht, Paradise Engineering
(referencing David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative
Google is an amazing company. Not only is the code infrastructure that they use stunning in power and elegance, but the culture they foster is fun-loving, humanistic, and promoting of employees’ creativity.
According to many vocal Googlers, the motto “don’t be evil” is not just empty rhetoric. It is an ideal people share and attempt to uphold. Better yet, Google may even be reducing the number of people doing outright evil things, although indirectly.*
Google’s publicly stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This goal will be accomplished with a combination of intensive and extensive approaches, ranging from making the world’s information infrastructure more robust to enabling cheap, widely accessible Internet worldwide.
But Google’s actual technological investments go much further, and there are not only a few, but multiple genuinely futuristic research projects on the table. Among them, most notably, is Calico, a company with the explicit mission to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan” with the aim of delaying, preventing and ultimately reversing aging altogether.
Now, all of this is not only futuristic. Anyone who is aware of the general ideas pursued in transhumanism will realize that Google is more than futurist: It fosters transhumanist goals.
The three Ss of Transhumanism
Although a precise definition of transhumanism is beyond the scope of this (and any) article, for the time being it will suffice to mention three of its main goals. As seen in this video produced by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS for short), these goals are: Super Intelligence, Super Longevity and Super Happiness.
Using that broad outline of transhumanism, can we say that Google is a transhumanist company?
Google is certainly furthering the goal of understanding and engineering Super Intelligence. It is doing so by funding and implementing Artificial Intelligence research projects that aim to make AI tools universally useful and available to everyone.
Although this is not the same as understanding conscious intelligence (a controversial topic)**, it is inarguably a huge step forward. By producing high-performing, universally available digital AIs, Google and other AI-focused companies will help us offload a large amount of mental menial work into wearable computers.
Indeed, the era of the cyborg is upon us. Embedded neural networks are likely to help us achieve better sensory-processing speeds and raw memory capacities, not to mention instant thought-controlled access to the world’s reserves of knowledge.
As mentioned earlier, Google is already helping the cause of Super Longevity with Calico and a host of other projects. In particular, Google is accelerating worldwide genetic research with its Google Genomics platform, which presumably will also help fight disease and cause people to live longer.
What is missing, though, is the use of this genius-level talent, amazing infrastructure, and public-good-oriented culture for the furthering of the goal of Super Happiness.
I propose that Google start a research project called Google Hedonics. Its goal would be to develop a fundamental understanding of the functional, biomolecular, and quantum signatures of pure bliss, and the know-how for instantiating it sustainably in all living organisms (if they so desire). Of course, a grandiose goal like that is not a requirement for a happiness-oriented project: It would suffice if they were to simply focus on reducing, as fast as possible, the incidence of extremely negative experiences.
The hedonic treadmill guarantees that no amount of social reform, universal welfare, access to health care or widespread participation in a culture of art will achieve long-term wellbeing for everyone in society. Depression, anxiety, anhedonia and boredom are bound to stay put unless we tackle the underlying genetic and biochemical causes of negative hedonic tone.
Google Hedonics’ goal would be to sabotage the hedonic treadmill. It would thus combine a variety of psychological, biochemical, psychophysical and genetic research projects to the effect of figuring out how to sustainably raise anyone’s hedonic set point. Google Hedonics would not be pursuing quick shortcuts to happiness, but rather, a deep understanding of the roots of bliss and suffering.
Some people argue that this is the most important task of all. For if we manage to prevent experiences below hedonic zero, nothing will ever quite “go wrong” in the same way it has before.
If we have our way, at any rate, we may someday read “H is for Hedonics” in the Alphabet listing of projects.
Contrary to popular opinion, a world in which life-long super bliss is the universal norm is not nearly as bad as it sounds. As discussed in the State-Space of Drug Effects article, human euphoria is not adequately captured by a unidimensional metric. Arguably, the hedonic quality of a given experience is multifaceted and full of complexities. When people imagine widespread happiness, it is common for them to simultaneously project a feeling of shallowness and vanity into such an imagined world.
This need not be the case: Surely fast and slow euphoria are not conducive to much depth of feeling and thought, but spiritual and philosophical euphoria is anything but. Empathogens like MDMA and 2C-B often (but not necessarily) produce experiences of great complexity, depth and unfathomable beauty. Likewise, people who have experienced deeply blissful mystical experiences attest that pleasure and the sublime can happily coexist.
Google Hedonics would certainly not limit its scope of research to understanding shallow and vain varieties of happiness. On the contrary, it would place a great deal of resources into understanding what brings wondrous depth to the human experience.
What Google Hedonics is Not
- Finding quick and dirty shortcuts to euphoria, in a way similar to today’s acute euphoriants (alcohol, cocaine, morphine, etc.)
- Research limited to bodily euphoria: Although feeling well and healthy is a precondition to fulfilling happiness, it is not enough. Spiritual and philosophical bliss are probably a requirement for satisfactory paradise engineering.
- An ideology-driven project to impose a belief in a particular philosophy of mind, such as functionalism. It is not possible to successfully tackle the problem of suffering if one’s background assumptions about consciousness are incorrect. Google Hedonics would experimentally investigate various theories of consciousness without a preconceived notion of which one is true (functionalism, panpsychism, dualism, etc.)
- And, importantly, it would not just be an economics startup! That is to say, its goal would not be to help people find what they want for cheap as informed by hedonic regressions, or even an AI-powered dating website. None of those things would sabotage the hedonic treadmill, and thus are irrelevant for its goal.
What are some example projects Google Hedonics could do?
These are just a few ideas to get your imagination started. They are unlikely to do the trick of instantiating lifelong bliss, but at least they don’t fail by design:
- Combining ultrasound neurostimulation and neuroplasticity-enhancing drugs on depressed people to induce long-term potentiation in their nucleus accumbens (the so-called “pleasure center”).
- Studying fMRI activity patterns of hyperthymics (generally happy people) using Google’s cutting-edge machine learning technology. Are there surprising symmetries in their distribution of voxel activation?
- Using NLP technology to cheaply diagnose depression throughout the world, and identifying activities, substances and environments that would sustainably raise people’s hedonic set point.
- Measuring the epigenetic changes of people who undergo hedonic tone-enhancing spiritual training (such as metta) to identify the genetic markers of sustainable spiritual bliss.
- Enhancing and extending healthy loving relationships with oxytocin spray and other empathogenic technology (chemical or not).
Personally, I don’t think any of the above would deliver miraculous therapies that prevent anxiety and depression altogether, but they would each deliver hints of tremendous importance. I trust that at a place like Google a thorough probabilistic cost-benefit analysis of the expected hedonic return of each possible research project would be conducted in earnest.
Google recently hosted EA Global. The very thought of this occurring is a great source of hope for me. Finally, altruism and rationality are meeting, and very smart people are spearheading it. The missing piece, as far as I can see, is a theoretically-sound utility function to maximize. The (attempted) use of QALYs in utilitarian calculations is a huge improvement upon hand-wavy head-counting. But hedonic tone is not yet in the picture, much less a truly sound way of measuring it, let alone optimizing for it. Google Hedonics would provide this missing piece and more: An actual solution for not having to ration bliss, by disconnecting it from the limited resources it has, as of now, always been limited by.
*Mary “Missy” Cummings , a roboticist from Duke University, has stated in several interviews that if it wasn’t for Google and other similar companies, organizations like the Department of Defense and military contractors would have and attract top technical talent. Instead, at least in the US, real top technical talent in the area of computing technologies is concentrated in large companies like Google, research universities, and even startups. Thankfully, fewer and fewer bright kids grow up looking at the Defense Department as a great place to build a career. Google’s “don’t be evil” may already be vindicated: There aren’t any more geniuses working for militaristic aims; they now work on futuristic projects that aim to improve the lives of everyone in the world (rather than to merely guarantee brute-force supremacy of one country over another).
**Qualia Computing argues that consciousness can accomplish certain computational tasks that digital computers cannot, even in principle, realize. Phenomenal binding is the key step in the information processing pipeline that distinguishes conscious systems from merely information-processing systems. This, however, is controversial, and I tend to assume that decades will elapse before neuroscientists and AI researchers alike come to a consensus on this matter. If phenomenal binding is indeed necessary for some computational tasks we usually ascribe to intelligence, let alone super-intelligence, we will need more than a revolution in machine learning algorithms to achieve this particular goal of transhumanism. We will need to investigate the quantum substrate of our wetware, our very mind/brains.