SAM ALTMAN WANTS to give every person on the planet free money—or rather free cryptocurrency. It’s a lofty goal that commands a lofty name: Worldcoin. Cofounded by Altman earlier this year, the project has raised $25 million to date from grandees such as Andreessen Horowitz and Coinbase Ventures. It’s part crypto buzz, part financial inclusion dream—and Altman believes that by piggybacking on the network effect of doling out a bit of the pie to every single human on Earth, WorldCoin could evolve into a global, fairly distributed electronic currency.
Altman, who runs the AI research outfit OpenAI and used to be the CEO of Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, says the concept is untested. “A lot of elementary school kids have thought that [to give free money to everyone] is a good idea,” Altman says. “But as far as I know, there have been no more serious plans than that.” The company has now exited stealth mode and released some extremely bold estimates on how many people it thinks will be claiming its Worldcoin: 1 billion in less than two years. Plus, Altman thinks, this might be the first step toward something more ambitious. “It could show the world a new way to think about—a prototype of UBI.”
According to Worldcoin’s promotional material, the company was born out of a belief that cryptocurrency technology, if adopted at a global level, “would open social and economic doors for billions of people”—and that’s where the UBI, or universal basic income, comes in. But right now, the argument goes, adoption of mainstream cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum is not global. Research by blockchain analytics company tripleA calculated that 300 million people, or 3.9 percent of the world’s population, own some crypto as of 2021. And the distribution is certainly not fair, with a small group of powerful, heavy-hitting “whales” controlling at least 70 percent of the global Bitcoin supply. In contrast, Altman says, Worldcoin would be a “fair coin” and a “chance to build the biggest financial network ever.”
All you’ll have to do to get your Worldcoin freebie—whose value, as always with crypto, will be determined by the meeting of supply and demand once the coin is launched and listed on online exchanges—is have your eyes scanned. In order to make sure that every person gets only their fair share of Worldcoin, the company has created a spherical device, called the Orb, that checks people’s unique iris patterns to verify whether they have a right to some coins. The company will distribute thousands of such devices to entrepreneurs across the globe, who will themselves be in charge of finding people to eye-scan and endow with Worldcoin—and who will get a Worldcoin reward for each person they enroll.
Iris scanning has been picked as a “proof of personhood” method, according to Worldcoin, because of the low rate of false negatives and positives (in other words, irises are more unique than other biological measurements). But the choice, alongside the vaguely ominous appearance of the Orbs, is bound to trigger endless eye-rolling—an unavoidable pun—and suspicions about another California tech company being after your data.
Altman, however, says that the system is secure and that the company will not be storing user data. Every picture of an iris will be converted into a digital code, called an IrisHash, which will be stored in Worldcoin’s database to check against future IrisHashes and deny coins to known users; the pictures themselves will be erased from the database. “We take a picture of your irises, we don’t even store it, we calculate a code from it, the code is uploaded, but the the image never is,” Altman says. “We don’t know any more information about you than that image.”
Right now, in fact, Worldcoin is running a pilot, involving about 30 Orbs in various countries, and storing a lot of data, including images of peoples’ eyes, bodies, and faces and their three-dimensional scans, according to the company’s own promotion material. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to fairly and inclusively give a share of Worldcoin to everyone on Earth. But we can’t wait to stop collecting it and we want to make it clear that it will never be our business to sell your personal data,” reads a blog post titled “Privacy During Field Testing.” In what Worldcoin calls its “field testing phase,” these images are being collected in order to improve the fraud-detection algorithms powering the Orbs. This phase will likely continue until early 2022; the data collected up to that point will be deleted once the algorithms “are fully trained.”
Alex Blania, who cofounded the company alongside Altman and Max Novendstern, explains that the Orb system allows for beneficial “incentive-alignments.” Not only will people be enticed by the prospect of getting something for free, but an army of Orb Operators will be actively recruiting them in order to get their rewards. (And in turn, Worldcoin has been hiring people to recruit the Orb Operators, according to an ad posted on a Kenyan job site).
Worldcoin itself will remain in charge of distributing the Orbs, and also of kicking out any operators that try to tamper with the devices in order to extract unwarranted rewards (for instance, by scanning someone twice). Could Orb Operators get their rewards by surreptitiously scanning the irises of clueless people who never heard about Worldcoin? Blania says the company is testing fraud-detection systems, adding that he cannot be “extremely specific.” But, in theory, the company could use metrics such as whether the user has actually claimed the Worldcoin or carried out any transaction, in order to spot untoward behavior and root out sneaky Orb-ers.
Over the course of the pilot, more than 130,000 users have claimed their Worldcoins—60,000 in the past month. To date, the project has used 30 Orbs run by 25 entrepreneurs in various countries, including Chile, Kenya, Indonesia, Sudan, and France. Blania reckons that the production of new Orbs will be increased to 50,000 devices a year, a number on which the projection of 1 billion users is based.
A launch date for the actual coin, which will be released as an ERC-20 token on the Ethereum blockchain, has not been released yet. A person familiar with the matter says a launch should happen in early 2022. For Altman, this will be just the start of a “wonderful, grand social experiment” about the power of networks, and also a dress rehearsal for future UBI ambitions. “One thing I believe is that you do an experiment, you do a first thing, and then you learn and you’ll discover all sorts of things about what works here and what we can improve,” he says. “There will be many answers to how something like this could become closer to a UBI.”
Altman has long been a fan of creating some form of universal basic income, and of how cryptocurrency could help bring that about. Earlier this year, he took that up a notch, floating the idea that a global UBI could be funded by profits generated by a powerful artificial general intelligence, or AGI. That elicited outrage from critics who regarded Altman’s vision as a Silicon Valley dystopia. Microsoft Research economist Glen Weyl tweeted that Altman’s proposal “epitomize[d] the AI ideology that I believe is the most dangerous force in the world today.”
Worldcoin could conceivably play a role in making that vision come true, Altman says. “I want to be clear: This is pure speculation. We’ve no specific plans for any of this,” he says. “But you could imagine doing something like the Worldcoin distribution to identify everybody on Earth, and then give them a UBI [created by] AGI’s profits.”