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 create them so easily has been both a boon to social media platforms – more “users” – and a bane, linked to the spread of conspiracy theories, distorted speech and other evils. the society.

Still, Twitter bots are nothing compared to what the world is about to experience, as all the time spent with ChatGPT illustrates. Fast 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 it. Altman is the co-founder and CEO of OpenAI, parent ChatGPT, and has long had more visibility than most on what’s happening around the corner. That’s why more than three years ago he conceived a new company that could serve above all as a proof of personality. Called World Currencyits three-part mission – to create a global ID, a global currency, and an app that enables payment, purchases and transfers using its own token, as well as other digital assets and traditional currencies – is as ambitious as it is technically complicated , but the opportunity is also vast.

Basically, here’s how the company, based in San Francisco and Berlin, works: To use the service, users need to download its application, then have their irises scanned with a silver orb the size of a melon that houses a custom optical system. Once the scan is complete, the individual is added to a database of verified humans, and Worldcoin creates a unique cryptographic “hash” or equation tied to 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 includes a private key linked to a shareable public key. Since the system is designed to verify that a person is in fact a unique individual, if the person wishes to accept a payment or fund a specific project, the application generates a “zero-knowledge proof” – or mathematical equation – which allows the individual to provide only the amount of information necessary to a third party. One day, technology might even help people vote for how AI should be governed. (A piece in the IEEE Spectrum socket better spell out the details of Worldcoin technology.)

Investors keen to do business with Altman jumped at the chance to fund the company almost as soon as it was dreamed up, with Andreessen Horowitz, Variant, Khosla Ventures, Coinbase and Tiger Global providing it with $125.5 million. But the public is more suspicious. When in June 2021, Bloomberg reported Altman was working on Worldcoin, many questioned his promise to give away a share of his new digital currency to anyone who accepted an iris scan. Worldcoin said it needed to be decentralized from the start so that it could offer future currency declines under universal basic income programs. (Altman has long predicted that the AI ​​will generate enough wealth to pay each adult a certain amount of money each year.) From Worldcoin’s perspective, the crypto coin was necessary. Yet some were quick to see it as just another crypto swindlewhile the others interrogates whether or not a fledgling startup collecting biometric data could really secure the privacy of its participants.

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 which bills itself as both a research lab and a product company, the outfit shares more details. Whether they are enough to convince users is an open question, but certainly more people now understand why proving personality online is about to become essential.

Everything everywhere at once

Publicity portrait photographer in Los Angeles and San Francisco Marc Olivier Le Blanc, advertising, editorial and lifestyle.

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

At the beginning of 2021, Novendstern had gone to launch another startup. Blania remained, however, becoming the CEO of Worldcoin.

Blania told me recently of Novendstern’s departure that he was “just amazing from scratch, very creative” but “not as operational as the business needs to be” at this stage. Meanwhile, Altman told me he was not “involved on a day-to-day basis” but thought “very strongly” of Blania’s now 120-strong team, which collectively aims to create the “largest financial and identity system in the world and to make it fully privacy-preserving and inclusive,” says Blania.

It’s a big challenge. Currently, the outfit says it has 1.2 million users; to be truly effective, it takes over a billion more, including people resistant to the idea of ​​biometric technologies and anything cryptographic.

Altman – who remains on the board of Worldcoin – knows there is a lot to overcome. At a party I hosted in January, he tell the audience that the “need for systems that provide proof of personality and the need for new experiences of wealth redistribution and global system governance” are increasing due to developments in AI, but he also called Worldcoin an “experiment ” which he is “very happy” is running.

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

Blania, who is betting much more on Worldcoin’s success than Altman, seems determined to make the company’s first vision a reality, and one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is getting enough people in front of the “orbs” that are at the heart of Worldcoin’s approach.

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

Worldcoin has plans to address this problem, Blania says, proposing that in Lisbon, for example, where “less than 5%” of residents have had their iris scanned, users could possibly receive coupons or “access to certain ready” or even single-player games, prompting more users to take the time to scan the iris.

A bigger driver of adoption will be the changing nature of the internet, suggests Blania. “It’s a very long road we have to travel, and yes, it’s going to take a while,” he said. “But even a year from now, it won’t just be ‘people’ on Twitter offering fraudulent crypto giveaways” that are instantly recognizable as bots. “Instead, imagine you spend 10 hours a day on the Internet and after you shut down your laptop, you don’t know if you’ve maybe talked to neural networks of different shapes for five hours and lost your time. It will be terrible.

In the meantime, 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 claims that Worldcoin is about to release an SDK so that developers can program to its API and integrate its technology into their own applications or platforms to verify that their users are human and to ensure that a user can only perform a particular action once.

stranger at the door

And applications for WorldCoin could continue to grow over time – if all goes according to plan. Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz would have Blania once said: “It’s a super interesting technology, but I think you don’t understand how important it is.”

Nevertheless, critics continue to doubt the lofty goals of the company and its technology. A lingering question is how people will use the actual Worldcoin given to them, and Blania doesn’t have a very satisfying answer at this point. “Due to regulatory considerations and the fact that the token is not intended to be available in the United States, I am unable to speculate on how the token could potentially be used,” he says.

As for those who are skeptical of the potential of cryptocurrencies to boost financial inclusion or enable universal basic income, Blania suggests that critics focus too much on Worldcoin’s cryptocurrency instead of how its products complement each other to validate people as unique and then allow them to do things like send and receive funds.

Meanwhile, a more immediate concern with Worldcoin’s approach is that because biometric authentication is a one-time process, there is no continuous link between users and their global credentials. When asked if a key generated by Worldcoin can be sold or disposed of in any way people want, Blania first acknowledges that “no system is perfect” and that “it will never be possible to ‘completely prevent this’, but adds that ‘we expect identity theft to become very difficult.

As for the competition – and Worldcoin some – Blania expects that entrants taking different approaches to proof of personality may fall naturally over time.

While Worldcoin’s orbs are “a bit out there,” he acknowledges, they give the company an edge over platforms trying to solve the same problem entirely online because of how quickly the online world is changing. Said Blania, “I fundamentally believe they’re just going to get ripped apart by the next generation of [large language] models [like ChatGPT] that are going to come out in the next 12 to 24 months because neither the digital content nor the intelligence will be good enough to discriminate [who is or isn’t human] more. You will need something that connects the physical world,” he adds. “Everything else will break.”

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