How to define Worldcoin, a project whose ambition is at least as great as the vagueness that surrounds it?
For most of the experts we interviewed for this survey, many agree that it is a kind of "protection" against the meteoric progress of artificial intelligence (AI).
The goal of the Worldcoin project - in all modesty - is to offer each human the means to prove that he or she is not a machine thanks to a digital identity whose data is derived from the iris of the 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, have led to fears of a certain confusion between man and machine. How to know if a person is really who he claims to be on the web?
That's the background.
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The brainchild of Sam Altman, who also heads OpenAI, the start-up that develops the conversational bot ChatGPT, the Wordcoin project has been quietly evolving lately (it was initiated in 2020), but it's about to change scale, thanks in part to the notoriety of its co-founder, Sam Altman.
According to our information, Worldcoin has just closed a fundraising round of over $100 million. This follows a previous round of $100 million in 2022, and $25 million in 2021. The valuation of the California-based company would exceed $3 billion.
Among the investors are the big 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 creating fake identities, ed.)," Jake Brukhman, co-founder of U.S. fund CoinFund, and investor in Worldcoin, tells The Big Whale.
An optimism that is not shared by all. "Everyone only has eyes for Sam Altman. He's really the new tech guru. No matter what he proposes, he is sure to find financing", regrets a French investor.
A technological tool: the "Orbs
To scan the world's irises, Worldcoin relies on an amazing machine that looks like a chrome bowling ball.
The machine was designed by Thomas Meyerhoffer. Meyerhoffer is no stranger to design, as he was part of the first team of Apple's historic designer Jony Ive in the late 1990s. He said two weeks 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 only one function: to scan your iris and convert its biometric fingerprint into a cryptographic data whose confidentiality is guaranteed through the use of zero-knowledge proof.
Those who accept it can let Worldcoin store their biometric data to "train" its system.
Once paired with the World App (available on iOS and Android), the machine generates 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, a blockchain expert and advisor on the Sismo decentralized identity project. "The only problem is that this system raises considerable issues in terms of surveillance," he worries.
Orbs available all over the world
Today, Orbs are available almost everywhere on the planet, even if this is not the case in France. In Europe, it is mainly in Spain and Portugal that the machines are available.
How does it work?
The program relies on an army of "operators", i.e. people who apply to receive an Orb to encourage volunteers to have their irises scanned. This can be a friend, a family member, a colleague, etc.
According to an interviewee who participated in the program, the selection process is like a job interview. You have to demonstrate your motivation in writing and in a video meeting.
If the test proves successful, worldcoin sends an Orb and offers a fee 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 also helps to fuel speculation about the project.
Sources close to the project have mentioned the launch of a token around this summer. According to the official documentation, it could allow to exercise the governance of the project in the long term (but it is very uncertain). To date, the project has nothing decentralized even if its team assures to pursue this objective.
"Regarding 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 meets 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 reward in tokens," points out Jimmy Ragosa. "We don't explain the implications, and for some we mislead them by not explaining all the consequences," he says.
The expert refers to several reports in 2022 that forced Worldcoin CEO Alex Bania to publicly apologize.
In Europe, the results are very mixed.
"A woman had started using orbs in the center of Paris," recalls Jeddi Mees, program manager for the Fabric Ventures fund 🇬🇧. But the mayonnaise never took, especially for reasons related to security and data protection.
According to our information, Worldcoin has changed its approach to avoid this type of publicity. From now on, the project would negotiate with companies specialized in operational distribution to industrialize the process, such as the giants of mobility - electric scooters for example.
"While the system was planning to place Orbs all over the planet, Worldcoin will now encourage people to go to the Orbs themselves," says a source close to the project. "This will involve a lot of online marketing, banner ads, education through the media, so that volunteers will want to go and get their irises scanned," she said.
What to spend the new money brought by the recent fundraising...
Worldcoin or not, the world will need to differentiate between human and machine
Despite criticism, Worldcoin is also finding support as the issue of online identification becomes a critical one.
"Worldcoin addresses an extremely important problem, especially in the web3 ecosystem," Jimmy Ragosa relativizes. "Preventing sybil attacks with a PoP solution would prevent airdrop farming or protect against governance attacks by creating multiple accounts," he says.
"This issue has become even more critical because of advances in artificial intelligence. Today, you have to be able to easily differentiate between humans and robots online," he continues.
Our expert is adamant: "I agree with Worldcoin's observation that the world absolutely needs robust Proof-of-Personhood solutions.
Finally, Worldcoin's problem is to manage to combine the need to innovate on this subject while dissociating itself from the negative image it conveys: "Those who criticize Sam Altman see him as a bit like a laboratory that would manufacture a disease, ChatGPT, and then offer the cure, Worldcoin," blows the employee of a fund. "He's a winner every time!"
But the subject is complex. Sam Altman or no Sam Altman, artificial intelligence will continue to advance at a rapid pace, and technology similar to that developed by Worldcoin will soon be essential.
"Among all the current PoP and Digital ID projects, this is the one that has the best chance of succeeding, especially thanks 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 on the order of 5-10% because the dystopian image of retinal scanning will be a very difficult sell to the global population and governments. In addition, 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 concerns."
"I'd rather Worldcoin succeed if all other PoP projects fail, because a world without PoP will not be sustainable," concludes Jimmy Ragosa.