OpenAIs Sam Altman, an entrepreneur and programmer best known for his work with Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator and later at the artificial intelligence startup OpenAI, launched a crypto project called Worldcoin on Monday. The company’s core offering is a digital ID called a World ID, which it describes as a “digital passport” to prove that its holder is an actual human, not an AI bot. To get a World ID, a customer signs up to do an in-person iris scan using the company’s “orb,” a silver ball approximately the size of a bowling ball. If the orbs iris scan verifies that the person is an actual human, it creates a World ID for them. The process is designed to take up to two seconds.
Those signing up for a World ID are given free Worldcoin crypto tokens. The tokens have no monetary value beyond the token itself. However, Worldcoin plans to use them in future projects, including a possible pilot for an AI-funded universal basic income, or UBI. This government-run social benefits program would grant every individual the right to regular payments from the public purse. Altman, who also co-founded the venture capital firm TFH with the cryptocurrency project cofounder Alex Blania, argues that his company can help combat fraud in future AI projects by ensuring that only real people receive payments.
However, researchers who study the relationship between the tech sector and developing countries say that Worldcoin needs to treat its users fairly. On back-to-back days in April 2022, BuzzFeed News and MIT Technology Review published stories alleging that the company was entering less developed countries with Silicon Valley hubris and making deceptive promises to orb operators. The company has been criticized for taking advantage of “vulnerable” people and has halted its orb operations in some countries.
A senior lecturer at Northumbria University who studies crypto in international development told MIT that the company’s tactics have been reminiscent of crypto-colonialism, in which Silicon Valley companies enter developing countries and treat their participants like lab rats. Inequalities in information and internet access mean that a promise of half a US dollar for each set of eyeball scans will not have the same incentive value in Kenya or Sudan as it might in Norway or the United States, and many locals are simply signing up because they need the money.
However, a Worldcoin rep insists that the company is not simply harvesting eyeballs for worthless crypto tokens, and the system’s verification of users is built around the security principle known as zero-knowledge proof. In a phone interview with Reuters, the rep said that if he could not verify that a particular user was an actual human, he would not issue them any World IDs. However, he refused to say whether or not the company had done such testing and did not respond when pressed on the subject of how it would verify its employees if they were ever asked to do so.