Worldcoin, co-founded by Sam Altman, is betting the next big thing in AI is proving you’re human

Fake virtual identities are nothing new. The ability to make them so easy has been both a boon to social media platforms – more “users” – and a blight as they are bound to proliferate conspiracy theories, distorted discourse and other societal ills.

Yet Twitter bots are nothing compared to what the world is about to experience, as any time spent with ChatGPT illustrates. Flash forward a few years and it will be impossible to know if someone is communicating with another mortal or a neural network.

Sam Altman knows this. Altman is the co-founder and the CEO of ChatGPT parent OpenAI and has long had more insight than most into what’s around the corner. Therefore, more than three years ago, he came up with a new company that could serve primarily as a proof of his personality. Called Worldcoin, its three-part mission — to create a global ID, a global currency, and an app that enables payments, purchases, and transfers using its proprietary token, along with other digital assets and traditional currencies — is as ambitious as it is technically complex , but the opportunity is also huge.

Broadly speaking, here’s how the outfit, still in beta and based in San Francisco and Berlin, works: To use the service, users must download the app, then have their iris scanned using a silver sphere the size of a melon that has a modified optical system. Once the scan is complete, the individual is added to a database of verified people, and Worldcoin creates a unique cryptographic “hash” or equation associated with that real person. The scan is not saved, but the hash can be used in the future to prove the person’s identity anonymously through the app, which contains a private key that links to a shareable public key. Because the system is designed to verify that a person is indeed a unique individual, if the person wants to accept a payment or fund a specific project, the app generates a “zero-knowledge proof” — or mathematical equation — that lets the individual can only provide the necessary amount of information to a third party. One day, the technology may even help people vote on how AI should be controlled. (A piece in the IEEE Spectrum outlet better describes the details of Worldcoin’s technology.)

Investors eager to do business with Altman jumped at the opportunity to fund the outfit almost as soon as they envisioned it, with Andreessen Horowitz, Variant, Khosla Ventures, Coinbase and Tiger Global providing $125.5 million. But the public has become more cautious. When Bloomberg reported in June 2021 that Altman was working on Worldcoin, many questioned his promise to give a portion of his new digital currency to anyone who agreed to an iris scan. Worldcoin said it had to be decentralized from the start so it could deliver future currency declines as part of universal basic income programs. (Altman has long predicted that AI will generate enough wealth to pay every adult an amount every year.) From Worldcoin’s perspective, the crypto piece was necessary. Still, some were quick to consider it just another crypto scam, while others questioned whether a budding startup that collects biometric data could really ensure participants’ privacy.

Altman later said the press was due to a “leak” and that Worldcoin was not ready to tell its story in 2021. Now reorganized under a new parent organization called Tools for Humanity that calls itself both a research lab and a product company, the outfit shares more details. Whether they will be enough to win over users is an open question, but surely more people now understand why proving online personality is about to become essential.

Everything everywhere at once

Alex Blania. Image credit: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

It was in 2019, when Altman left the famous accelerator Y Combinator to become CEO of OpenAI, that he started interviewing people to lead a new organization he envisioned. The first founder he brought into the fold, Max Novendstern, was a former investment executive at Bridgewater Associates and previously worked for a money transfer startup called Wave; the second founder brought on by Altman, Alex Blania, had studied theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology and the Max Planck Society.

At the beginning of 2021, Novendstern had moved on with the launch of a new startup. However, Blania stayed and became the CEO of Worldcoin.

Blania recently told me about Novendstern’s departure that he’s “just incredibly zero-to-one, very creative” but “not as operational as the company should be” right now. Altman, meanwhile, has told me that he is not “involved on a day-to-day basis” but thinks “super-high” about Blania’s now 120-person team, which collectively aims to create the “largest financial and identity system in the world and make it complete while preserving privacy and privacy”. inclusive,” says Blania.

It’s a big assignment. Currently, the outfit says it has 1.2 million users; to be truly effective, it needs over a billion more, including people who are resistant to the idea of ​​biometric technologies and anything to do with crypto.

Altman – who remains on Worldcoin’s board – knows there is much to overcome. At an evening event I hosted in January, he told the audience that the “need for systems that provide evidence of personality and the need for new experiments in wealth redistribution and global management of systems” is growing because of developments in AI, but he mentioned Worldcoin an “experiment” that he is “really happy”.

Further, while Altman suggested privacy concerns surrounding Worldcoin were misplaced, he also acknowledged that same evening that they could be insurmountable. “For me personally,” he’d said, “the amount of privacy you give up to use Facebook or something versus the amount of privacy you give up for a scan of your retina and nothing else — I’d rather have the latter.” And a lot of people won’t want to, and that’s fine. But I think about more experiments on what problems we can solve with technology in this new world, like [it’s] great to try that stuff.

Blania, relying much more on Worldcoin’s success than Altman, seems determined to execute on the company’s early vision, and one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is getting enough people for the “orbs” that are central stand in Worldcoin’s approach.

Right now, the orbs are “everywhere from universities in Kenya to shopping malls in Lisbon,” says Blania, who says it currently only takes 60 seconds for someone to do a high-definition iris scan. But penetration is far from where it needs to be.

Worldcoin has plans to fix this, says Blania, offering that in Lisbon, for example, where “less than 5%” of residents have had their irises scanned, users will eventually be able to receive coupons or “access to certain loans” or even single-player received games, enticing more users to make time for an iris scan.

A bigger driver of adoption will be the changing nature of the internet, Blania suggests. “It’s a very long road we have to walk, and yes, it’s going to take a while,” he says. “But even a year from now, it won’t just be ‘people’ on Twitter offering scammy crypto giveaways” that are instantly recognizable as bots. “Instead, imagine spending 10 hours a day on the internet and after closing your laptop you have no idea if you may have spent five hours talking to neural networks of various shapes and forms and wasting your time. It will be terrible.”

Meanwhile, Worldcoin is also embarking on a business strategy that could be the most promising and lucrative way for Worldcoin to gain momentum. Indeed, a company spokesperson says Worldcoin is about to launch an SDK so developers can code to the API and integrate the technology into their own apps or platforms as a way to verify that their users are human and to make sure to ensure that a user can perform. a given action only once.

Stranger at the gate

And the uses for Worldcoin could continue to grow over time – if all goes according to plan. Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon reportedly once told Blania, “This is super interesting technology, but I don’t think you understand what a big deal it actually is.”

Nevertheless, critics continue to question the company’s lofty goals and technology. An open question is how people will use the actual Worldcoin currency they get, and Blania doesn’t have a very satisfactory answer at this point. “Due to regulatory considerations and the fact that the token is not intended to be available in the US, I am not in a position to speculate on how the token might be used,” he says.

As for those skeptical of cryptocurrencies’ potential for boosting financial inclusion or enabling universal basic income, Blania suggests critics are too focused on Worldcoin’s cryptocurrency rather than how the products complement each other to help people as unique and then allow them to do things like send and receive money.

In the meantime, a more immediate concern about Worldcoin’s approach is that because biometric authentication is a one-time process, there is no ongoing link between users and their World IDs. When asked if a Worldcoin-generated key can be sold or disposed of in any way, Blania acknowledges that “no system is perfect” and that “it will never be possible to completely prevent this”, but he adds that “we expect imitation of identity”. become very difficult.”

As with almost every startup, Worldcoin also faces another kind of external challenge: competitors. It certainly has something.

At this point, Blania seems unconcerned, as he expects newcomers who take different approaches to prove their identity to naturally drop out over time.

While Worldcoin’s orbs are “a little bit out there,” he acknowledges, they give the company an advantage over platforms trying to solve the same problem entirely online because of the speed at which the online world is changing. Blania says: “I fundamentally believe they will just be ripped apart by the next generation [large language] models [off which ChatGPT was built] coming out in the next 12 to 24 months, because neither digital content nor intelligence will be good enough to differentiate [who is or isn’t human] not anymore. You need something that bridges the physical world,” he adds. “Everything else will break.”

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