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OpenAI’s Sam Altman wants to convince billions of people to scan their eyes to prove they aren’t bots. Meet Worldcoin, the founder’s crypto project

Worldcoin's orb scans Fortune reporter Leo Schwartz's irises on March 12, 2023 in Brooklyn, New York.
Worldcoin's orb scans Fortune reporter Leo Schwartz's irises on March 12, 2023 in Brooklyn, New York.
Karsten Moran for Fortune

The Worldcoin orb resembles a bowling ball conceived by Steve Jobs or an oversized Magic 8 ball possessed by HAL 9000. Its glossy exterior envelops the sphere, save for a gaping black circle in the front that houses three sensors positioned in a triangle.

Making the object round was an engineering nightmare, but the symbolism was too vital to ignore. The orb isn’t a perfect sphere but two halves that come together at an angle that matches the orbit of the Earth—designed by Thomas Meyerhoffer, the first hire of Apple legend Jony Ive.

Architectural marvel that it is, the orb serves a simple purpose: It scans your iris and converts the biometric image into an impenetrable string of numbers, which Worldcoin refers to as an “IrisCode.” When combined with an algorithm, the code verifies you’re a unique human.

Each week, about 40,000 people subject themselves to the scan. On a chilly Sunday in March, I became one of them, with an orb-carrying Worldcoin employee stopping by my cramped Brooklyn apartment.

After two years of reading about the company, I welcomed the opportunity to meet the orb face-to-face. Finally, once the technician wrestled it from a specially designed backpack and connected it to an internet hotspot, I was able to stare into its depths. The orb responded with beeps and bops, lighting up white and red as it scanned my iris and beamed the encoded results back to the mothership. After about 45 seconds, the World App on my phone illuminated, revealing that I had been successfully verified. I was myself, after all.

The company, founded by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, converts the biometric data code generated from iris scans into a “proof of personhood.
Karsten Moran for Fortune

Silicon Valley these days is short on fanciful ideas. There’s the “Uber-for-X” reprise, where the venture capital herd mentality has turned every app into a facsimile of some other company, but even that has ceded to the proliferation of business-focused products focused on infrastructure or payroll software.

Worldcoin, in contrast, might be original to a fault, starting with the orb—perhaps the most iconic piece of hardware since the iPad. Then comes the pitch: There are 8 billion people on Earth. How do we prove each person is real? Worldcoin’s solution is cataloging every individual over 18 years old through a privacy-preserving protocol, rewarding each person with cryptocurrency, which in turn will become the new global monetary standard.

The word “ambitious” doesn’t do justice to either the idea or cofounder Sam Altman, also the creator of OpenAI.

In the two years since details of Worldcoin’s plan first leaked, the company has been hit with criticism ranging from privacy concerns to potential labor abuses to just how strange it is. And plummeting crypto markets did not help Worldcoin’s globe-conquering strategy.

The stunning rise of OpenAI and its ChatGPT tool, which set records for user adoption and spurred a flood of venture funding, may have helped reverse Worldcoin’s fortunes.

Conversations with Worldcoin executives, investors, and users have illuminated the shared dream of a not-too-distant future between the two companies—one where artificial intelligence pervades society, and we need a countervailing force to keep humans in control of their destinies. As Worldcoin barrels toward that tomorrowland, the project will have to convince billions of people that it’s committed to preventing—not creating—some dystopian nightmare.

Proving ‘humanness’

Alex Blania, CEO of Worldcoin parent company Tools for Humanity, was studying for a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 2020 when he joined Sam Altman’s latest brainchild, lured by the idea of an A.I.-powered system for evenly distributing money to the world’s population, a form of universal basic income.

The founding team early on settled on iris scans as the method to authenticate what Blania refers to as “humanness.” Fingerprints can be changed, he says, and faces are easy to reauthenticate but nearly impossible to compare against a larger set. A driver’s license or a private key could be stolen or lost, copied or tampered with.

“We know it sounds weird—and it sounded weird to us as well when we started the project—but it is fundamentally the only way to solve that problem,” Blania says.

The next dilemma was convincing people to sign up. Offering a reward is one solution: When a person is scanned, verified, and onboarded to Worldcoin, they are given 25 proprietary crypto tokens, which are also called Worldcoins. The tokens may carry the promise of future riches, but they’re worthless unless the project launches at scale.

One early adopter, a 30-year-old online entrepreneur living in Portugal, told me over Discord that he hopes his tokens will be worth millions, although he’s been disappointed that Worldcoin keeps delaying the release.

“It’s very clear that it’s going to become more and more difficult to disentangle what was generated by a machine and what was generated by a person.”

Eddy Lazzarin, CTO at Andreessen Horowitz Crypto

In Worldcoin’s trials, the company also experimented with other rewards, from cryptocurrencies such as wrapped Bitcoin and Tether to AirPods. That still wasn’t enough.

Blania recalls running around Berlin with one of the earliest iterations of the hardware that would capture people’s irises, which at the time looked like a normal blue bowling ball. He couldn’t get anyone to sign up. The team continued to iterate on the design, at one point testing out its sleek, silver exterior. Suddenly, people started coming up to him. The orb became a conversation starter.

The sheer audacity of Worldcoin attracted top investors, with the company reaching a valuation of $3 billion by early 2022. After Bloomberg first reported on Worldcoin in June 2021, the orb quickly became a lightning rod for attention and outrage. Part of that was by design, Worldcoin’s executives and investors told Fortune.

“The surest way for Worldcoin to fail is for nobody to hear about it,” says Jesse Walden, a cofounder and general partner at Variant Fund.

After a person’s iris is captured, Worldcoin says the biometric data never leaves the orb.
Karsten Moran for Fortune

Even so, the company’s aspirations—a “decentralized” future where people are scanned and recorded by a Silicon Valley-backed company—had the familiar whiff of colonialism, although Worldcoin’s parent company, Tools for Humanity, insists that the process will someday be fully open-source and run by the nonprofit Worldcoin Foundation. Unsurprisingly, the company has suffered a torrent of ridicule and exposes, including from Edward Snowden, who tweeted that “the human body is not a ticket-punch.”

In two investigations, published on back-to-back days in April 2022 by BuzzFeed News and MIT Tech Review, journalists alleged that Worldcoin trials in developing countries were riddled with deceptive promises made both to orb operators and participants. Other allegations included privacy law violations and even corruption.

Blania called the reporting unfair, adding that the problems stemmed from the company still being in beta testing and hitting natural snags in the process. “Obviously things have not been perfect, and many things needed to improve,” he says. “The company is still very early.”

According to Blania and Tiago Sada, Tools for Humanity’s head of product, the process has since been perfected to ensure total privacy. After a person’s iris is captured, the biometric data never leaves the orb, they explain, instead converting it into the IrisCode, which itself is only used to create a verification of a person’s uniqueness through a convoluted system of zero-knowledge proofs and proto-danksharding. Eddy Lazzarin, the crypto CTO at Andreessen Horowitz, insists the IrisCode cannot be reversed to reconstruct the image of an iris—or at least not yet.

If that all sounds like gibberish, the upshot is that, according to Worldcoin, the company has devised a perfect system to prove human uniqueness in a way that won’t compromise privacy.

Crypto for the world

The bigger question is whether Worldcoin can achieve its almost impossibly ambitious scale. After last year’s spate of bad press, Worldcoin slunk into the background, further buffeted by the chill of the Crypto Winter. It continued to onboard new participants but was far off from its once-stated pace of having 20 million to 30 million registrants and 6,000 orbs by the end of 2022. Today, Worldcoin has signed up around 1.4 million people, with between 100 and 200 orbs operational at any given time. At the rate of 40,000 verifications a week, it would take almost 2,000 years to sign up half the world’s current population, although Blania says the company is far from operating at full capacity.

The explosion of OpenAI and ChatGPT has reignited hope for the project. The two companies always skated in parallel, part of Sam Altman’s vision—shared by Blania and his investors—that in a world defined by A.I., there would have to be a fair and efficient way of dispersing a universal basic income.

The hope, Blania says, is that Worldcoin can “actually distribute the upside of all this tech for as many people as possible.” Put more simply, if artificial intelligence takes all our jobs, Worldcoin can be the mechanism of distribution to make sure ensuing capital creation is not hoarded by a select few.

The UBI aspirations for the project still seem half-baked. Both Variant’s Walden and a16z’s Lazzarin demurred when I asked about the mechanics, and Blania answered vaguely about creating a so-called “Windfall Clause” where companies would have to share their revenues once they reach 2.5% of the global GDP.

The “currency” element itself is also tricky. While the Tools for Humanity team hopes Worldcoin will someday become bigger than Bitcoin, or even the U.S. dollar, the Worldcoin token will only have value if everyone agrees to adopt it—a chicken-and-egg dilemma that could euphemistically be called social consensus and derisively a pyramid scheme.

“One Altman entity manufactures a problem, and the other sells a solution to the problem they manufactured.”

Elizabeth Renieris, senior research associate at Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in A.I.

Complicating matters further is whether regulators in the U.S.—and other key countries—will ever permit Worldcoin’s crypto token. The Worldcoin employee offered to come to my apartment to prevent any impression that the company was operational in New York. The company plans to eventually offer the verification service in the U.S.—without the token.

Outside its cryptocurrency component, a different feature of Worldcoin is more immediately suited to A.I.’s rapid rise: proving humans are human. “Everybody has seen deepfakes, and everybody hears voice synthesis,” says Lazzarin. “It’s very clear that it’s going to become more and more difficult to disentangle what was generated by a machine and what was generated by a person.”

To capitalize on the growing use case—and offer a more immediate route to monetization—Worldcoin launched a feature last week called “World ID,” a kind of badge you receive after being verified by Worldcoin that you carry around the internet proving that you’re not an A.I. bot.

In the company’s vision, World ID will join—or supplant—usernames and passwords. Users logging onto platforms will use their World Apps, which, in an A.I.-saturated world, could be an elegant and relatively anonymous solution to proving one’s identity.

Elizabeth Renieris, a privacy expert and senior research associate at Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in A.I., says Worldcoin is just positioning itself to profit off an A.I.-dominated society created by Sam Altman’s higher-profile company.

“One Altman entity manufactures a problem, and the other sells a solution to the problem they manufactured,” Renieris tells me. “The relationship is a bit like pharmaceutical companies who place dangerous, highly addictive drugs on the market and then try to sell new drugs to treat the very addiction they helped create.”

Blania denied the charge, saying challenges around artificial intelligence won’t only originate from OpenAI. Altman did not make himself available for an interview.

For now, Worldcoin remains in beta. Despite its decentralized aspirations, it has yet to fully open-source its protocol, though most of the orb’s schematics are available on GitHub. Blania hopes that someday other people will create their own verification objects, with Tools for Humanity receding into the background.

The parent company, however, has yet to release even the tokenomics of the project—the breakdown of how Worldcoins will be minted and distributed. A person familiar with the matter said that upward of 70% of the tokens will go to Worldcoin registrants, with the rest going to Tools for Humanity and its investors. The token launch could happen in the first half of 2023.

OpenAI continues to conquer the internet, launching its newest language model system, GPT-4, last week. Worldcoin, meanwhile, is biding its time, manufacturing thousands of new orbs to disperse around the globe and betting that billions of people will be willing to stare into the future.

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