A new crypto company, Worldcoin, wants to scan billions of eyes with mysterious metal ‘Orbs’, to safeguard against AI – what could go wrong?
Artificial intelligence innovations have come thick and fast over the course of the last year, mainly driven by companies such as OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT. In fact, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has spoken openly about the risks of such technology if it goes unchecked, ranging from large-scale disinformation, to identity theft, to the complete extinction of the human race. For at least one of these problems, though, he claims to have the solution – all you have to do is hand over a scan of your eyeballs for his database. No biggie!
On Monday (July 24) Altman announced Worldcoin, an ambitious (some say over-ambitious) cryptocurrency project that’s been years in the making. Now, we know what you’re thinking... aren’t cryptocurrency projects all basically scams? For the most part, you’d be right to be suspicious, but Altman isn’t just your average crypto bro. After leading the explosion of public-facing AI with OpenAI, he’s probably one of the most influential people in the world right now, and he claims that Worldcoin is a vital step to avert the technology’s biggest dangers.
Regardless of his credentials, it’s obviously worth taking Altman’s claims with a pinch of salt, and he has no shortage of sceptics to raise some important questions. Like, why should we give up our eyeball data for a currency that we can’t even use to buy anything yet? What does scanning our eyeballs have to do with crypto anyway? And could the project really, as Altman claims, set us on the path to AI-funded UBI, and usher in some version of Fully Automated Luxury Communism?
Below, we attempt to answer all of your most pressing concerns.
WHAT IS SAM ALTMAN’S WORLDCOIN, EXACTLY?
Described as a “new identity and financial network owned by everyone”, Worldcoin can basically be split into two parts: a worldwide digital currency, and a database of human eyeball scans. To access the currency, people will first have to consent to the scan, to verify their identity.
Users will then have access to an app (World App), which will allow them to make payments, buy things, and transfer funds. “The goal is simple: a global financial and identity network based on proof of personhood,” says Altman. “This feels especially important in the AI era.”
WHAT DO THEY WANT WITH MY EYEBALLS?
Naturally, the eyeball thing is going to be a sticking point for many people, but it’s also what the whole project revolves around. Basically, to sign up for Worldcoin, you have to travel to an IRL site where you can have your eyes scanned by an imaging device called the Orb. This will assign you a unique digital identity in a private database, which will be used – in theory – to set you apart from an AI impersonator or bot, if and when that becomes a significant risk.
the goal is simple: a global financial and identity network based on proof of personhood. this feels especially important in the AI era.— Sam Altman (@sama) July 24, 2023
i'm hopeful worldcoin can contribute to conversations about how we share access, benefits, and governance of future AI systems.
DATABASES, ORBS... SOUNDS DYSTOPIAN
Yes. The Orbs are coming for you. In fact, they’ve already infiltrated 35 cities across 20 countries, including London. Plus, two million people signed up for Worldcoin before the launch, during a beta period. Altman now has his sights set on two billion.
Well, like all dystopias, Worldcoin has its roots in a utopian-sounding dream. Besides tackling the risk of AI impersonation, the project’s aims include offsetting the job losses that many fear will become commonplace in the age of intelligent machines, by introducing something akin to Universal Basic Income (UBI).
In other words, anyone who signs up to scan their eyes will be eligible to claim free Worldcoin tokens every week, through the World App. (This isn’t sounding any less dystopian, is it?) One day, this could essentially mean that people receive a sum that covers the costs of their basic subsistence, while AI-driven machines pick up the majority of humanity’s workload. For various reasons, this is a very controversial subject, but it’s something Altman has been passionate about for some time, fending off critics who suggest he’s simply trying to buy favour and curb regulations on his company’s tech.
OK, I SCANNED MY EYEBALLS. NOW WHAT CAN I DO WITH MY WORLDCOIN?
Hmm, good question. Because Worldcoin is an emerging cryptocurrency, its value is essentially defined by people’s interest in adopting it as a form of payment. It could go the way of Bitcoin, becoming massively popular as it spreads on worldwide crypto markets, or it could go the way of Dogecoin and fade into relative obscurity.
As for what you can actually do with Worldcoin... that’s unclear, at least for now. In an FAQ, Worldcoin itself points out that potential uses will be defined by the users themselves, but suggests that it could be applicable for fairly traditional uses, like paying for goods and services, sending gifts, and tipping your favourite artists.
DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY EXPECT WORLDCOIN TO SUCCEED?
Worldcoin has big ambitions. “If successful, we believe Worldcoin could drastically increase economic opportunity, scale a reliable solution for distinguishing humans from AI online while preserving privacy, enable global democratic processes, and eventually show a potential path to AI-funded UBI,” says the company. Even Altman himself, however, acknowledges that the scope and complexity of the project makes its success difficult to predict. “Like any really ambitious project, maybe it works out and maybe it doesn’t,” he says. “But trying stuff like this is how progress happens.”
One challenge that Worldcoin will have to overcome, if it wants to stick around for long, is backlash from various world governments (many of which have their own digital currencies in the works). The UK’s data watchdog has already announced an investigation, and regulatory concerns have disrupted the rollout in the US.
As Worldcoin hype grows, some have also warned that potential users are being targeted by scammers and phishing campaigns – a common issue in the cryptocurrency world, fuelled by regulatory grey areas and the blind faith of many crypto communities. First they came for the monkey pictures, now they’re after our eyeballs. Where will it all end?