Worldcoin, Sam Altman's mysterious crypto project

Worldcoin, Sam Altman's mysterious crypto project

Little known to the general public, the Worldcoin project, backed by the co-founder of OpenAI, is making more and more headlines. The Big Whale investigated 🔍.

How do we define Worldcoin, a project whose ambition is at least as great as the vagueness that surrounds it?

For most of the specialists we interviewed for this survey, many agree in presenting it as a kind of "protection" in the face of the dazzling progress of artificial intelligence (AI).

The aim of the Worldcoin project - in all modesty - is to offer every human the means of proving that they are not a machine thanks to a digital identity whose data is derived from the iris of their eye. Without talking about a digital identity card, we can talk about a "proof of human personality" (Proof-of-Personhood, PoP).

The subject has become all the more crucial in recent months as new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, raise fears of a certain confusion between Man and machine. How do you know if someone is really who they say they are on the web?

That's it for the context.

The brainchild of Sam Altman, who also heads up OpenAI, the start-up that develops the ChatGPT conversational robot, the Wordcoin project has been evolving quietly of late (it was initiated in 2020), but it is about to change scale, thanks in part to the notoriety of its co-founder, Sam Altman.

According to our information, Worldcoin has just completed a fundraising round of more than $100 million. This follows a previous round of $100 million in 2022, and $25 million in 2021. The valuation of the California-based company is said to exceed $3 billion.

Investors include major Silicon Valley funds such as Andreessen Horowitz.

"We are very excited about Worldcoin. The technology is very interesting. They are building a resistance mechanism to the sybil attack (attack within a reputation system that is overturned by the creation of false identities, ed. note)," Jake Brukhman, co-founder of US fund CoinFund, and investor in Worldcoin, tells The Big Whale.

An optimism that is not shared by everyone. "Everyone only has eyes for Sam Altman. He really is the new tech guru. No matter what he comes up with, he's sure to find funding," laments one French investor.

A technological tool: the "Orbs"

To scan the irises of the world, Worldcoin relies on an amazing machine, which looks like a chrome bowling ball.

The machine was designed by Thomas Meyerhoffer. Meyerhoffer is by no means an unknown, as he was part of the first team of Jony Ive, Apple's historic designer, in the late 1990s. Here's what he said a fortnight ago on LinkedIn: "Worldcoin will probably reach more people than any other project I've worked on".

The Orb - that's the name of its machine - has just one function: to scan your iris and convert its biometric fingerprint into cryptographic data whose confidentiality is guaranteed via the use of zero-knowledge proof.

Those who accept can let Worldcoin store their biometric data in order to "train" its system.

Once paired with the World App (available on iOS and Android), the machine can generate your "PoP". Worldcoin claims to protect privacy as the company does not collect any demographic information such as their names, ages, addresses or ID numbers.

"Biometrics and retinal scans form the most robust solution to positively identify a human," points out Jimmy Ragosa, blockchain expert and advisor on the Sismo decentralised identity project. "The only problem is that this system raises considerable issues in terms of surveillance", he worries.

Orbs available just about everywhere on the planet

Orbs are currently available just about everywhere on the planet, even if this is not the case in France. In Europe, the machines are available mainly in Spain and Portugal.

How does it work?

The programme relies on an army of "operators", i.e. people who apply to receive an Orb in order to encourage volunteers to have their irises scanned. This could be a friend, a family member, a colleague, etc.

According to one interviewee who took part in the programme, the selection process is like a job interview. You have to demonstrate your motivation in writing and during a video meeting.

If the test proves conclusive, Worldcoin sends an Orb and offers remuneration in worldcoin cryptocurrencies to be shared between the "scanner" and the "scanned". According to several participants, the remuneration is currently 25 worldcoins for scanning one's iris; the value of the worldcoin is not yet known, which is also helping to fuel speculation about the project.

Sources close to the project have hinted at the launch of a token around this summer. According to official documentation, it could enable the project's governance to be exercised in the long term (although this is highly uncertain). To date, there is nothing decentralised about the project, even though its team claims to be pursuing this objective.

"Concerning the exact role of the token, I myself have asked the question to several Worldcoin speakers at conferences and they have been unable to give me a clear answer. In my opinion, it's mainly an economic incentive to get people to have their irises scanned", he says.

A project that is encountering resistance in developed countries

To date, more than 1.5 million people have agreed to have their irises scanned, but the geography is far from uniform. "Today, Worldcoin is online and has full operations in Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, India and Kenya," says a spokesperson.

"The target populations are uneducated about privacy issues and simply attracted by the token reward," points out Jimmy Ragosa. "We don't explain the implications to them, and for some we mislead them by not explaining all the consequences," he points out.

The expert refers to several news reports published in 2022 that had forced Worldcoin CEO Alex Bania to publicly apologise.

In Europe, the record is very mixed.

"A woman had started using orbs in the centre of Paris," recalls Jeddi Mees, program manager for the Fabric Ventures fund 🇬🇧. But the mayonnaise never took off, notably for reasons linked to security and data protection.

According to our information, Worldcoin has changed its tune to avoid this type of publicity. From now on, the project will be negotiating with companies specialising in operational distribution to industrialise the process, such as mobility giants - electric scooters, for example.

"Whereas the system planned to place Orbs all over the planet, Worldcoin will now be encouraging people to go to the Orbs themselves," says a source close to the project. "This will involve a lot of online marketing, the purchase of advertising banners, education via the media, so that volunteers will want to go and have their irises scanned", she huffs.

Something to spend the new money brought in by the recent fund-raising...

Worldcoin or not, the world is going to need to differentiate between human and machine

Despite the criticism it has received, Worldcoin is also finding support, as the issue of online identification is set to become a crucial topic.

"Worldcoin is tackling an extremely important problem, particularly in the web3 ecosystem," relativises Jimmy Ragosa. "Preventing sybil attacks with a PoP solution would make it possible to prevent airdrop farming or protect against governance attacks by creating multiple accounts", he points out.

"This problem has become even more critical because of advances in terms of artificial intelligence. Today, we need to be able to easily differentiate between humans and robots online", he continues.

Our expert is categorical: "I agree with Worldcoin's observation: the world absolutely needs solid Proof-of-Personhood solutions".

Finally, Worldcoin's problem is to manage to combine the need to innovate in this area while dissociating itself from the negative image it conveys: "Those who criticise Sam Altman see him a bit like a laboratory that would manufacture a disease, ChatGPT, and then offer the cure, Worldcoin," blows one fund employee. "It's a winner every time!"

The subject is complex, however. Sam Altman or not, artificial intelligence will continue to progress at breakneck speed, and it will soon be essential to have technology similar to that developed by Worldcoin.

"Of all the current PoP and Digital ID projects, this is the one that has the best chance of succeeding, thanks in particular to the media, financial and social power of its founder, who is going to become the Elon Musk of the next few years," prophesies Jimmy Ragosa.

"I estimate its chances of success to be around 5-10% because the dystopian image of the retina scan will be very hard to sell to the world's population and governments. What's more, scaling up the Orb system seems to be an insurmountable obstacle to mass adoption. The solution would be to pivot to a system based on smartphone cameras, for example, but that raises other privacy issues."

"I would prefer Worldcoin to succeed if all other PoP projects fail, because a world without PoP will not be sustainable," concludes Jimmy Ragosa.

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