OpenAI Founder Launches Eyeball-Scanning Cryptocurrency

(Photo via Worldcoin Media Center)

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The AI hype generated by Chat-GPT has given Sam Altman the Midas touch. How did that story end again?

Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency cofounded by Altman, launched on Monday. It had a robust first day of trading, with investors clamoring to join a venture associated with the success of OpenAI via Altman — and that’s despite the fact that Worldcoin cannot yet operate in the US and requires people to physically scan their eyeballs to use it. Still, investors wouldn’t go for a patently absurd token just because it’s associated with a famous tech CEO, right?

Alt(man)Coin

Worldcoin has been trundling along for the last three years, although Altman told Bloomberg in 2021 that he first dreamt it up in 2019. The idea was that it could be used to achieve universal basic income, essentially eradicating global poverty through cryptocurrency — though a 2022 investigation by MIT Tech Review painted an image of the company as exploiting nations with high rates of poverty. Despite the grand (some might say delusional) scale of the project’s ambitions, it attracted big-name investors including Andreessen Horowitz, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and the then-untarnished Sam Bankman-Fried.

Worldcoin’s most distinguishing feature is that to use it, you have to prove you’re a human and not an AI bot by having your iris scanned by a device called an “orb.” On Worldcoin’s site, there’s an option to “schedule orb visit” and find the nearest place to have your eyeball scanned and your identity verified:

  • The company has 11 orb sites in the US, even though Worldcoin tokens aren’t yet available in the country, due to heightened regulatory scrutiny of the crypto market. In an interview with the Financial Times, Altman struck a fairly blase tone when talking about the initial exclusion from the US, saying, “I’d say there’s 95 percent of the world’s population not in the US. The US does not make or break a project like this.”
  • Altman conceded in the same interview that some potential adopters might find the eyeball-scanning element off-putting, calling it “a clear ick factor.”

Orb Ponderers: The technicians who’ll help people log their iris scans are called orb operators, and Worldcoin’s website makes the application process look like a quick, easy, gig-economy-style job. The company already deployed orb operators across the globe in the runup to launching its token, getting people scanned and signed up to Worldcoin in advance, but it was far from a smooth operation. Orb operators told BuzzFeed last year the tech didn’t always work; the system could be gamed to register the same person twice, and one operator said his orb took months to arrive and when it did, it was prone to overheating. Let’s hope Worldcoin has ironed out those kinks.