Even as Silicon Valley magnate Sam Altman captures headlines with his world-eating artificial intelligence startup OpenAI, his side project Worldcoin continues to attract eyeballs—literally.
Worldcoin, if you’re unfamiliar, anticipates a future where A.I. bots are indistinguishable from humans online, and the global economy has been disrupted by automation. To solve this, the company proposes scanning every adult’s iris with a plastic orb to verify one’s “personhood,” rewarding them with a crypto token in return that could one day replace traditional incomes.
It sounds like a sci-fi movie, but investors are taking it seriously. Today, Worldcoin’s developer, Tools for Humanity, announced a $115 million Series C funding round led by crypto-native venture fund Blockchain Capital, with other investors including a16z crypto, Bain Capital Crypto, and Distributed Global. The company declined to provide a valuation.
“As we embark on the age of A.I., it is imperative that individuals are able to maintain personal privacy while proving their humanness,” said Alex Blania, the cofounder and CEO of Tools for Humanity, in a statement. “In doing so we can help ensure that everyone can realize the financial benefits that A.I. is poised to deliver.”
Worldcoin began in 2019, with Sam Altman—fresh off his stint as president of the influential accelerator Y Combinator—recruiting fintech entrepreneur Max Novendstern and physics Ph.D. student Blania as founding members. Novendstern left the company in 2021.
In its early days, the founders positioned Worldcoin as a company focused on universal basic income, or UBI, where users would be scanned, and the resulting crypto token rewards—also called Worldcoin—would become a new global currency. The project previously raised a $100 million Series B in 2022 at a $3 billion valuation from a16z and Khosla Ventures.
Although Worldcoin’s founders have stated their long-term goal is to create a fully decentralized system, the development of the project is now managed by Tools for Humanity, with plans to eventually spin out control to a nonprofit foundation.
Despite its hefty backing, Worldcoin hit snags during the bear market, with plummeting crypto prices—along with media reports alleging exploitation and corruption in the project’s rollout in developing markets—extending its beta-testing period. The rising hype of A.I., and especially Sam Altman’s ChatGPT, provided Worldcoin with renewed purpose.
In March, Worldcoin launched a new feature called World ID, a protocol that would allow other platforms to use Worldcoin’s “proof of personhood” system to act as a kind of digital credentialing system to tell humans and bots apart. Its team argues that iris scans are the only effective way to prove someone is a unique person, with alternatives like fingerprints, face identifications, and state-issued licenses either too hackable or unscalable.
Then in May, Worldcoin launched its World App, a wallet that includes its World ID for users, along with the ability to hold Worldcoin tokens as well as other cryptocurrencies. Some critics pointed out that Worldcoin, with its new emphasis on combating the pernicious effects of A.I., is addressing problems created by Altman’s other venture.
Even with its new funding, Worldcoin’s main challenge will be to persuade billions of people to be scanned by its orb—currently fewer than 2 million have signed up. The main concern for onlookers is still privacy, with many balking at the idea of volunteering biometric data to a private company. While Tools for Humanity members tout their privacy-first technological innovations, black markets have emerged to sell World ID credentials.
Worldcoin also faces regulatory challenges, with the project deciding not to launch its token in the U.S. as crypto legislation stalls. The app is not available in other markets that have banned crypto, such as China.
Tools for Humanity aims to launch its token later this year.
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