- By Joe Tidy
- Cyber correspondent
A cryptocurrency project described as “dystopian” has been launched by artificial intelligence entrepreneur Sam Altman.
Worldcoin gives people digital coins in exchange for a scan of their eyeballs.
At sites around the world, people lined up to gaze at the silver orbs on the first day of the project’s full launch.
The BBC visited a scanning site in London where people received free crypto tokens after going through the process.
Mr. Altman, the managing director of Open AI who built the ChatGPT chat bot says he hopes the initiative will help confirm whether someone is human or a robot.
“Worldcoin could dramatically increase economic opportunity, scale a reliable solution to distinguish humans from AI online while maintaining privacy,” Altman said in a launch letter on the company’s website.
Worldcoin also claims that its system could pave the way for an “AI-funded” universal basic income. But we don’t know how.
The concept of universal basic income provides that all citizens receive a fixed salary, regardless of their means.
The first step in this crypto utopia as presented by Worldcoin, however, relies on millions, if not billions, of people scanning their irises to prove that they are human.
Since testing the scanners began two years ago, Worldcoin claims that more than two million people have been added to the crypto database in 33 different countries.
According to the company, most listings have taken place in Europe, India and southern Africa.
Now that the project is fully launched and the crypto tokens are available to claim and trade, it should become even more popular.
Worldcoin posted a photo of people queuing at a site in Japan online and said it plans to deploy 1,500 orbs to locations around the world.
The BBC went to try it out at a pop-up site in east London and found a steady stream of people showing up.
The process begins by scanning your face and iris to prove that you are a person. It takes about 10 seconds to look into the Orb’s camera lens and wait for a beep to confirm it worked. Interestingly, the Orb operator says the silver ball spoke to users – but customer reviews described it as “scary”, so they removed the voice.
The next step is to give your iris scan a unique number which is checked against the giant database to make sure it’s the first time you’ve done it. If so, the ball beeps again and you are now on the database with 2.6 million other humans at the time of writing.
25 free Worldcoin tokens are awarded upon completion, which are currently valued at around $2 (£1.56) each. The BBC will sell the coins once they are received and donate the money to Children in Need.
By the time the BBC left the pop-up site, 13 people had been scanned. All were men in their twenties and thirties.
“I came after seeing Sam Altman tweeting about the launch,” said Moses Serumaga, 37.
“I saw you could get dollars for this so I thought why not? It could die like other crypto projects or it could be a big thing and go up in value. I didn’t want to miss that,” he said.
Tom, 23, also scanned his eyeball, but said he didn’t do it for the money as he didn’t think the tokens would go up in value.
“I don’t think that amount of money is enough of an incentive unless you live in less developed countries and I don’t think there’s much possibility of it really increasing,” he said.
The digitization process has proven controversial with reports criticizing some of the tactics used by orb operators who are paid on commission, with particular concern over those registering in poorer countries.
Privacy experts are also concerned that sensitive data collected when scanning a person’s iris could fall into the wrong hands, even though Worldcoin insists no data is stored.
Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of the Ethereum cryptocurrency network, responded to Worldcoin’s launch by expressing his enthusiasm for the project but also issuing a warning about its potential pitfalls.
“Overall, despite the ‘dystopian vibe’ of staring at an orb and letting it scan deep into your eyeballs, it looks like specialized hardware systems can do a pretty decent job of protecting privacy,” he said.
However, he also says that relying on the specialized orbs to perform the scans could give Worldcoin too much power and make it difficult for the world to integrate.
Twitter founder and crypto enthusiast Jack Dorsey tweeted an apparent critique of the project, describing its mission as “cute”, and adding the dystopian disclaimer: “Visit the Orb or the Orb will visit you…”.
Mr Altman hailed the critics, saying online that “haters” energize his team. But he admitted the project was ambitious.
“Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t, but trying stuff like this is how progress happens,” he tweeted.