Credit: Worldcoin

Worldcoin’s “Orb” Wants to Scan Our Eyes. Should We Let It?

BY Andrew Rossow

July 24, 2023

Sam Altman’s ambitious attempt to create a blockchain-based global verification system that proves personhood via an eyeball-scanning “orb” just came to life. On July 24, the OpenAI CEO announced the launch of the Worldcoin protocol and the WLD token — its native currency — after years in development.

Worldcoin wants to be our “digital passport” into a new world where our human identity can never be questioned or confused with an AI. Perhaps even more ambitious, Altman claims that Worldcoin could eventually pave the way for AI-funded universal basic income — all while “preserving privacy.”

Backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures, and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, the startup has already raised close to $250 million as it begins to roll out its new global initiative. Prior to Monday’s debut, the company has already experienced a significant wave of interest, with over two million users participating in its beta version.

However, the venture has also drawn concerns and criticisms from many notable figures in the technology space, including Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

The launch has many at rapt attention as they consider the financial opportunities, privacy concerns, and everything in between.

The “orb”

The first step to participating in Worldcoin is scheduling a scan with the orb. Worldcoin’s orb is a biometric verification device that looks like it came directly out of the 2008 AI thriller film Eagle Eye. The device, which is roughly the size of a bowling ball, is essentially a digital litmus test for proving that someone is human.

Those eager to prove their humanity can visit one of the 150 currently operational orbs. However, 1,500 orbs will reportedly be available across 35 cities across five continents by the end of 2023.

Post-scan, users are given a uniquely generated World ID — a “digital passport” stored on their mobile device that proves the user is not an AI bot but, in fact, a living, breathing human being.

Leading this initiative is Alex Blania, a former Ph.D. student in theoretical physics who now serves as the CEO of Tools for Humanity, Worldcoin’s parent company that operates out of San Francisco and Berlin. Tools for Humanity developed a software development kit (SDK) where other third-party apps could use an individual’s World ID (once generated) in lieu of having to enter other login credentials like emails and passwords. 

Blania told Fortune that he hopes to have two billion users by the end of 2023, with Worldcoin’s token launch driving more sign-ups in new markets. 

WLD, Worldcoin’s native token, witnessed a surge during Monday’s launch, with the token’s price soaring from an initial $0.15 to a notable high of $5.29 on Binance. It eventually settled around $2.49. Worldcoin, however, is not launching its token directly on exchanges like Coinbase or UniSwap, but instead, is airdropping it directly to users. 

Benefits of Worldcoin

As digital identity is arguably today’s most valuable asset, the growing utilization of AI in the everyday workforce has forced us to look for ways to protect ourselves from the strong likelihood of confusion when there’s an AI involved. We are now far beyond the simple “image captcha” tasks, and Woldcoin offers a unique solution. The dire need for us to prove “personhood” comes at the most crucial time, with the ongoing SAG-AFTRA/WGA writers strike and the growing concern as questions surrounding job security and authorship continue to unravel.

Right now, the ability to detect whether a human is involved or if it’s an AI program controlling is becoming more difficult. While the U.S. has been relatively slow in its ability to come to a consensus on a basic, fundamental regulatory framework governing ethical AI usage, other countries, including the EU, have been hard at work in pushing out their proposals for their respective frameworks.

Worldcoin also offers the potential for a universal basic income — eventually. Altman says that Worldcoin’s overarching goal is to eventually onboard every individual across the globe into a “financial distribution model” where its native currency, WLD, could become a “central form of currency” and be distributed through “universal basic income” (UBI) programs.

With AI unavoidable and now at the center of every conversation, Altman believes that UBI could serve as “a buffer against rising income disparities,” with World IDs acting as a check against fraudulent claims.

However, he also admits that this UBI-centric world is still very distant, and the mechanics of its implementation remains unclear.

“You could imagine a system like Worldcoin being used for global UBI at some point. We have a lot of progress to make and economic growth to achieve before we can do that, but someday” Alman shared at Worldcoin’s Seoul event. Still, he believes that experiments like Worldcoin are “crucial” to initiate now in order to “chart the way forward.”

Concerns and cautionary tales

While some see the value in Worldcoin, others believe we should proceed with caution.

Even before the July 24 launch, some had concerns about the project surrounding privacy and the potential for abuse. A 2022 investigative study published in MIT Technology Review revealed that the company representatives supposedly “used deceptive marketing practices” in collecting more personal data than it was willing to admit and “failed to obtain meaningful informed consent” that triggered potential violations of local laws and Europe’s global privacy framework GDPR.

In Worldcoin’s most recent FAQ, the company emphasizes privacy, noting that it will never share or sell any personal data (including biometric data) with anyone outside the project. Further, images taken by the orb are deleted once the “iris code” is created (unless the user opts into Data Custody). The company also points out that they are fully compliant with GDPR.

Despite these reassurances, many across Web3 expressed doubts surrounding Worldcoin, including Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin. In a July 24 blog post titled “What do I think about biometric proof of personhood?,” he expressed major concerns surrounding Worldcoin’s “Proof of Personhood” system that directly impacts privacy, accessibility, centralization, and security.

He noted that scanning an individual’s iris could potentially release more information than intended (at least on the user’s side). Additionally, he argued that World IDs wouldn’t be readily accessible to everyone, given the difficulty in currently obtaining an “orb” device. Speaking next to the orb as a hardware device, Buterin says, “We have no way to verify that it was constructed correctly and does not have backdoors,” teasing at the possibility that malicious manufacturers could create many bogus human identities.

Lastly, with the possibility of a user’s smartphone being hacked, the possibility of an individual being coerced into giving out their iris scans presents a major security concern.

“There is no ideal form of proof of personhood,” Buterin wrote, adding that “[i]nstead, we have at least three different paradigms of approaches that all have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.”

Global identity verification

As innovative as Worldcoin may appear, it’s never a good idea to “scan first ask questions later.” Anyone wanting to participate in the new protocol should do their own research before taking the dive into getting their digital passport. While certainly bold, it’s yet to be proven how valuable or safe Worldcoin’s global endeavor actually is.

Still, Blania and his team of engineers believe that Worldcoin’s protocol of iris scans is the only universal way to create a global identity verification system, with the token serving as an incentive mechanism to acquire users. 

“Think about the questions of how society will distribute access to AGI systems, the benefits of them, governance, how we’re going to differentiate between what is done by people and what is generated by machines,” Altman shared. “We don’t have answers to any of this yet. But if something like Worldcoin can work, I think that’s a quite interesting new tool to have.”

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