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I Looked Into Sam Altman’s Orb and All I Got Was This Lousy Crypto

Jul 28, 2023 6:00 AM

I Looked Into Sam Altman’s Orb and All I Got Was This Lousy Crypto

Tools for Humanity has an iris-scanning Orb that decides whether you're human or a robot—and then gives you crypto. But is Worldcoin worth the price?

Worldcoin Orb on a table

Photograph: Joel Khalili

I’m here to see the Orb. The receptionist knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not the first person here for an audience. Inside the coworking space in Shoreditch, East London, a small crowd has gathered. Mostly male, mostly young, many bearded—very crypto. The Orb is there too, chrome, gleaming, mounted at eye-level on a pole, waiting to scan us, one by one. In fact, there are two Orbs—the other one is being carted around less ceremoniously by hand.

The devices are on a world tour, the sharp end of a new cryptocurrency-based project, Worldcoin, created by Tools for Humanity, a company cofounded by Alex Blania and Sam Altman, founder of OpenAI and creator of ChatGPT. Everyone who signs up to the project has their irises and other facial features scanned by one of the hundreds of Orbs in circulation, in return for a chunk of a new cryptocurrency. The aim, its founders say, is to create a global identification system that will help reliably differentiate between humans and AI, in preparation for when intelligence is no longer a reliable indicator of personhood.

By capturing someone’s unique biometrics and encoding those details into a numeric string, the logic goes, that person will be able to demonstrate they are both a human (not a bot) and unique from other humans, for the purposes of voting, say. In turn, social media firms and other online platforms will be able to verify the authenticity of their users and thereby stamp out nefarious bot activity, from spam and fraud to the spread of disinformation.

“The one discriminator we had on the internet to distinguish us from machines was always intelligence, but that’s going to vanish,” Blania told WIRED in June. “To our knowledge, the Orb is the only implementation that can work globally to solve this problem.”

The name of the project, Worldcoin, is a nod to its global ambitions (the Orb has already recorded eyes in more than 30 countries, across five continents), but also the cryptocurrency given out to anyone that agrees to be scanned. The idea was to use a crypto handout, explains Blania, to solve the perennial cold start problem: What better way to encourage people to join than to pay them? So far, more than 2 million people have signed up.

But the dystopian flavor of the proposition—an iris scan for some crypto—has been lost on nobody. In October 2021, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden admonished the idea in a Twitter thread: “Don’t catalog eyeballs,” he wrote. “Don’t use biometrics for anti-fraud. In fact, don’t use biometrics for anything. The human body is not a punch ticket.” Blania says that, unless an individual specifies otherwise, raw images captured by the Orb are deleted and only the numeric representation is kept on file.

Despite criticism of the project, my visit to the Orb shows that plenty of people are willing to squash any apprehensions, whether because they are a fan of Altman, tech’s latest messiah, or for a shot at crypto riches. But as more information about Worldcoin is made public, crypto analysts are raising objections: Whether by design or otherwise, they say, regular people are unlikely to profit.

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The origins of Worldcoin can be traced back to 2019, when Altman was casting about for a way to stand up a global scheme for universal basic income, or UBI, an arrangement whereby everyone is given a modest amount of money on a regular basis—at least enough on which to subsist. In order to distribute wealth truly equitably, though, he would need an identity verification technology that prevented people from signing up twice and walking away with more than their fair share.

In June 2021, the first details about the project were published. Before ChatGPT brought generative AI into the public consciousness, the slant of the pitch was slightly different: Worldcoin would launch a new cryptocurrency, a share of which would be given to everyone on earth, provided they could demonstrate their uniqueness. Since then, Worldcoin has been handing out what effectively amounted to an IOU: A promise that a handful of its new tokens would be given to signups at a later date, once the technical infrastructure had been developed and tested.

A nonprofit called the Worldcoin Foundation has been formed to steward the project and ensure the identity network acts as a “public utility.” Tools for Humanity, which developed both the Orb and the app through which people sign up, will eventually look for ways to generate income from services that form around the project. But for now, there is “nothing within sight,” says Blania.

To both trial its technology and scale its user base, Worldcoin conducted initial field tests across 27 countries—from Norway and Chile, to Kenya and Sudan. A team of independent contractors, called Orb Operators, who were paid a commission for each iris scanned, notched up hundreds of thousands of signups. 14 of the trial nations are classified as developing, per WorldBank. “We wanted to test it in all circumstances,” says Blania.

In April 2022, MIT Technology Review published an investigation that found Worldcoin representatives had frequently engaged in “deceptive marketing practices” and “failed to obtain meaningful informed consent” from those whose eyes they were scanning. Blania says the issues described in the report should be put down to the teething pains of a startup: “I don’t want to make light excuses,” he says. “But back then, the project was 15 people sitting in a small town in Germany. Many, many, many changes have been made.”

On July 24, the Worldcoin token was finally ready for distribution. In a statement marking the occasion, Blania and Altman said they hope Worldcoin will “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.”

In London, it often took a few attempts for the Orb to register its target; glasses were sometimes a problem, or a drooping fringe. But otherwise, the process took all of a few minutes: The Orb scanned a QR code on the person’s phone generated when they preregistered, then their face.

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“We don’t take ID or anything. So long as you look over 18, we scan your iris,” said Ana Howard, the contractor hired to lead onboarding in London. But everyone that registers is “one hundred percent informed and knows what they’re signing up for,” she added.

Everyone who got scanned got a free T-shirt. On the front was emblazoned the Worldcoin logo and the words “unique human.”

Over the next three hours, a steady trickle of people arrived for their own appointments with the Orb, but with a varying degree of knowledge about the project and differing motivations for being there. Of the seven that spoke to WIRED, none had much if any trepidation about their eyes being scanned: There’s no such thing as privacy these days, anyway, I was told. But almost all said they would have given more thought to their decision had Altman not been associated with the project.

“I’m a fan of Sam [Altman] for ChatGPT, so I thought: Let me give it a whirl,” says Greg King, after he had been scanned. “I know a little bit [about the Worldcoin project], but not masses—I thought I’d catch up later.”

Altman was also the attraction for Michael Aldridge, another new signup, who until that morning had never heard of Worldcoin. “I may still have come along,” he said, “but would probably have done some more research.”

Others, even if they had a passing interest in the proof of personhood proposition, were primarily there for the crypto reward. James Bryant explained he was making a calculated gamble on the possibility that Worldcoin might be the next cryptocurrency to skyrocket in value; he was hoping to get in on the ground floor. “I think this might be the next chance,” he said. “It’s the next big bet. How else can you move up the social ladder?”

“It sounds greedy,” said Joe Sims, another new registrant, “but the crypto giveaway [was the reason I came.] I remember hearing about bitcoin 10 years ago, when it cost $8, but ignoring it. Maybe nothing will come of this, and yes, I’ve given up my iris—but it’s only taken five minutes.”

That logic seems to be driving a lot of the interest in Worldcoin. On the Discord server, the talk is almost exclusively about the 25-token “genesis grant”—worth about $50—awarded to those that sign up either within the first week or prelaunch. “It’s been two days already,” wrote one verified user, who was still waiting to receive their payout. “Now it feels like my three days of travel for Orb verification is wasted,” said another, in a similar boat.

Experts in tokenomics—the issuance and supply dynamics of crypto tokens—have expressed concern that the structure of the Worldcoin launch may jeopardize the project’s bold ambitions from the outset, and, potentially, disadvantage regular people that now purchase the token.

The total supply of Worldcoin tokens will be capped initially at 10 billion. Three quarters of that amount will be distributed to users over the next 15-plus years, with the remainder split between Tools for Humanity staff and investors, who must refrain from selling any for at least the next 12 months.

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At launch, though, a maximum of 143 million tokens will circulate, 100 million of which have been loaned to third-party marketmakers whose job is to provide liquidity on the exchanges on which the token trades. Dyma Budorin, cofounder of crypto auditing company Hacken, says the arrangement—whereby a token is launched with a small initial supply, a large chunk of which is given to market makers—leads to an unrealistic valuation (Worldcoin presently has a theoretical market capitalization of $22.9 billion) that serves the interests of prelaunch private investors but makes it unlikely that regular people buying on the open market will profit. Others, like Ari Paul, founder of investment firm BlockTower Capital, have articulated similar concerns.

Another possible red flag, says Budorin, is the lack of a clearly discernible use for the token, beyond financial speculation. Typically, a token might serve a particular function (say, to let holders vote on how a project should allocate the money in its treasury) that undergirds its value. But in this case, says Budorin, that utility is missing. “Right now, Worldcoin is a memecoin, a Sam Altman memecoin—it’s like a toy,” he says.

The Worldcoin token, the whitepaper states, will “empower users by giving them a say” over the direction of the project, but not until the Worldcoin Foundation has ironed out the specifics in consultation with users. Tools for Humanity did not respond to questions about the opportunity for the Worldcoin tokenomics to favor the interests of private investors over regular users. But in our June interview, Blania defended the idea that the utility of the Worldcoin project would unfold slowly over time, and that the token is only a small fragment of the larger picture.

“At the simplest level, Worldcoin is a digital identity and financial network. That’s the core of it. All of the other things—AI and UBI—are applications,” he says. “Something like this is going to happen, there’s no way around it. It will become necessary.”

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Joel Khalili is a reporter for WIRED, covering crypto, Web3, and fintech. He was previously an editor at TechRadar, where he wrote about the business of technology, among other things. Before turning his hand to journalism, he studied English literature at University College London.
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