Why the Creator of ChatGPT Wants to Scan Your Eyes
Worldcoin is looking to go where no identity project has gone before
By: Zack Abrams
May 12, 2023
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Sam Altman's ChatGPT has appeared in the news a lot lately for all the doomsday scenarios that could be spawned by AI making robot assistants feel more human. But a lesser-known project he also co-founded, Worldcoin, is interested in something else: Proving your humanity to the robots.
Worldcoin is one of many new players in the multi-billion dollar digital identity market seeking to collect biometric data from users, keep it safe, and link it to a unique digital identity. It's not necessary novel in its mission. But it certainly is in its implementation.
Unlike Clear Secure — a company known for verifying your identity with machines at the airport that let you skip the security line for a cool $189 a year — Worldcoin is attempting to decentralize that entire process (using blockchains instead of centralized databases.)
Their new model puts people in control of their own on-chain identities and is looking to challenge the old playbook of a Web2 tech company attempting to grow: Build a subscriber base, collect all the data you possibly can on users, and either sell that data to advertisers or leverage it in order to create a premium experience. Case in point — according to internal documents obtained by OneZero, the data Clear collects “includes favorite foods and beverages at sports stadiums, when they arrive at games, what kind of credit card they have, whom they attend games with, and how often they fly first class.” Maybe not great if you're into privacy.
And for those who are resistant to mass data collection, there aren't a lot of alternative identity options. Services from big tech companies like Apple Pay or Sign-in With Google make online life much easier, but also at the cost of individual user privacy. And worse yet, at least in the U.S., our social security numbers basically function as a username and password combined into one. No wonder that identity theft is on a rapid rise.
Worldcoin seeks to provide a crypto-native alternative to traditional public or private digital identity systems. And it all comes down to the project's 150 or so orbs floating around the world.
Worldcoin’s proprietary orb is an iris-scanning device meant to verify that each human on Earth can only join the Worldcoin network once. When a user scans their iris, which Worldcoin claims has enough fidelity to differentiate between ten billion people as opposed to fingerprint scans or facial recognition, an encrypted hash of their iris is generated.
That hash is then checked against Worldcoin’s ledger to ensure that the user has not joined the network yet. If it’s their first time getting scanned, that user then gets a World ID linked to their digital wallet. The World ID will allow users to claim a regular allotment of Worldcoin tokens, though the nature of those drops has not yet been disclosed. In a new Coinage interview, the Worldcoin team says it hopes to launch their token sometime in the next few months.
“It will hopefully become the largest network, financial and identity network, for real humans,” said Tiago Sada, Head of Product at Tools for Humanity, Worldcoin’s parent company.
Sada points out that Worldcoin doesn’t store any of this biometric information or link it to anyone’s real-life identity. The purpose of the orb is merely to prove that a person has never been scanned before. As Worldcoin says, the project started as a way to answer the question, “How can we give everyone on Earth free money, while making sure each person has one and only one account?” The creation of the orb was their best idea for approaching this problem.
“You can imagine that if your wallet is like a passport, what the orb does is it puts a stamp on it that doesn't have any personal information”, said Sada. “And so when you're using your World ID later on, what you're doing is you're just showing that your real ID has this stamp. But that stamp says nothing about who you are. It says nothing about the biometrics that were used when you were verified, and it says nothing about things like your on-chain activity or your wallet.”
While Worldcoin has had success in signing up over one and a half million users to the service, they’ve also faced criticism for their recruiting approaches, which involve contracting orb operators all around the world to entice people to scan. In return for a scan, Worldcoin generally promises 20 Worldcoin tokens to its users. However, with the token launch pushed back multiple times, early adopters have yet to see any reward from their involvement with the product. It remains to be seen how much 20 Worldcoin tokens will be worth, and some contracted orb operators were reportedly paid as little as 14 cents for each successful scan.
Worldcoin has acknowledged the criticism and claims that its efforts to decentralize its operation will hopefully lead to more trust from users.
“I think we've learned in the last 20 years that when a company says we're not evil, you should look at that twice, right?” said Sada. “We believe in not being able to be evil. And so everything about how the protocol is built, the different parts of the system, they're meant to be open and verifiable.”
For more on Worldcoin, Clear, and why digital identity matters, check out our episode above. To support our community-owned outlet and unlock exclusive benefits, mint one of our NFTs today!