Star founder + Endorsements from well-known institutions: Using “iris recognition” WorldCoin wants to build a “Brave New World”
Author: Irfan, ChainCatcher
WorldCoin is positioning itself as a collectively owned global digital currency and hopes to reach an even larger user base through offline promotion, allowing the cryptocurrency to reach at least one billion users.
If you are a sci-fi fan, you will probably remember the close-up of the blue iris in “Blade Runner”. The movie opened the curtain with that huge eyeball, flashing alternately with the brightly lit industrial scene.
In this movie, released in 1982, the iris is tested to see if a person is truly human.
This encryption startup WorldCoin seems to be pushing the future time in science fiction forward. With the vision of “Free coin to everyone”, they plan to launch a universal, zero-threshold cryptocurrency and practice the so-called “basic income for all” social experiment, So, that everyone can have the opportunity to enter the world of encryption. But there is a condition, you need to provide your own iris scan data.
Its official website wrote: “WorldCoin needs a more accurate, safe and robust way (iris recognition) to verify whether someone is unique and whether it is a real human (rather than a robot) to prevent fraud.”
WorldCoin has been in the public eye since June when it raised $25 million in funding from a16Z, Coinbase Ventures and other high-profile investors. At the same time, criticism of the iris scans poured in.
Tweets from WorldCoin officials and members of the startup team, there were far more negative comments than supportive ones — “dystopian”, “Big Brother-style”, “Surveillance coin”, “Sauron’s eye” and so on. Snowden also tweeted a warning that “the human body is not a ticketing machine.” “Don’t use biometrics for anti-fraud purposes. In fact, don’t use biometrics for anything.”
After all, the eyeball is a dystopian metaphor all too strongly coloured, as Ridley Scott deliberately used the iris as a metaphor for Big Brother’s eye in the opening sequence of Blade Runner. If you look at the Orb concept of the iris scanner developed by WorldCoin, you will see that this association is very natural.
However, iris recognition has attracted huge attention, but this is only a superficial “bright spot”, after all, the biometric privacy crisis has always existed. Another controversial point, WorldCoin’s plan to give free money to everyone in the world, was not fully discussed.
Despite the controversy, the project, endorsed by many high-profile investors, has not stopped moving towards the “Brave New World”.
Compared with other digital currencies, WorldCoin has three main characteristics. First, it establishes a huge offline promotion and encourages a large number of operators to recruit users around the world through token incentives. The second is to construct a personal identity system through iris recognition to ensure authenticity and uniqueness. Thirdly, most tokens are issued to qualified users free of charge to ensure fair issuance.
In October, WorldCoin announced that it will be launched on mainnet next year, with plans to reach 1 billion users by 2023. So far, the number is about 0.13 million. This is not easy, some people think that it is as difficult as the “moon plan”.
So how exactly does WorldCoin realize this grand vision? And how to ensure that biometrics such as iris scanning does not threaten public privacy? How much is the operability of the basic income conception?
1. Worldcoin’s vision
“Imagine a world where everyone around the globe, regardless of who they are, could participate in the growing space of digital economies and benefit from decentralized, collective ownership.” — Worldcoin
Sam Altman, one of the heads of WorldCoin, is a star founder. He is a former head of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator, where he had been president since age 28. Under his stewardship, YC has rapidly scaled up its investments to incubate more than 3,000 startups with a combined market value of more than $300 billion. YC has invested in Airbnb, Coinbase, Reddit, Twitch and other top Internet companies.
But this time, Sam Altman decided to do something bigger and more radical, and WorldCoin is the first blockchain company he co-founded.
Altman likes to tweet his views on the new world order, taxes, wealth distribution and governance. In March, he wrote a long post on his blog about the potential of AI and other new technologies for social change, particularly how they can be used to transform our economic system and improve the unequal distribution of wealth.
At the time, there was no WorldCoin, but an idea like “American Equity Fund”:
All citizens over 18 would get an annual distribution, in dollars and company shares, into their accounts. People would be entrusted to use the money however they needed or wanted — for better education, healthcare, housing, starting a company and so on. Rising costs in government-funded industries would face real pressure as more people choose their own services in a competitive marketplace.
As long as the country keeps doing better, every citizen would get more money from the Fund every year (on average; there will still be economic cycles). Every citizen would therefore increasingly partake of the freedoms, powers, autonomies, and opportunities that come with economic self-determination. Poverty would be greatly reduced and many more people would have a shot at the life they want.
Altman started thinking about WorldCoin as early as the end of 2019. In an interview with Bloomberg in June, he said that the inspiration for using cryptocurrencies to achieve equitable distribution came from economists’ theory of universal basic income (UBI), which is simply a welfare system that gives people enough money to sustain their lives in perpetuity.
UBI is not a new theory, but it has been put on the agenda several times in recent years by different countries. The reality is that automation and pandemic have led to higher unemployment and lower economic outcomes across the world. By providing a basic income without thresholds, people’s economic status and social stability can be improved.
“Is there a way we can use technology to improve all of this on a global scale?” It’s a question Altman often ponders.
Altman dropped out of Stanford’s computer science program and before worked in Stanford’s AI lab. He is “extremely optimistic” about technological progress and believes that new technologies such as AI will create a better society.
When WorldCoin came under intense criticism for its iris scans, he responded on Twitter: “I’m a big fan of FaceID, but surprised to hear someone tell me they don’t.”
Altman ultimately chose blockchain and cryptocurrencies as the means to achieve a utopian society.
In fact, there are already several projects in the crypto industry focused on building UBI mechanisms, such as Proof of Humanity and Circles UBI, where users can continue to receive tokens awards after being authenticated. But WorldCoin is not intrinsically similar to these projects, and UBI is one of the initial goals of the project’s co-founders.
“I’m personally very excited about UBI in the long run, but it’s very difficult to implement it right now. We think we’re building a huge network platform for entrepreneurs that can join and build applications on, and UBI is one of them,” WorldCoin co-founder Alex Blania said in an interview.
According to the official profile, WorldCoin positions itself as a collectively owned global digital currency, and hopes to reach a larger user base through offline promotion to reach at least 1 billion users with cryptocurrencies. In their view, the more users there are, the more powerful the cryptocurrencies will be.
“The Internet is powerful because its scale is large. E-mail, social applications, and marketplaces are examples. The more users they have, the stronger they become.” According to WorldCoin, “If adopted on a large scale, cryptocurrency will greatly increase access to the Internet economy and enable applications that are now unimaginable.”
One of the early functions of Worldcoin will be a digital wallet that lets users store their cryptocurrencies and make payments. But the bigger goal is to attract developers who can build applications on top of their systems.
This vision is probably the main reason why a number of top VCS are attracted to the crypto industry, which desperately needs a wider user base and lower barriers to entry to scale up the crypto economy.
Currently, WorldCoin has tested with more than two dozen carriers in twelve countries across four continents (Africa, South America, Europe and Asia) with more than 130,000 verified users and plans to reach more than 1 billion users by the end of 2023.
However, in the face of users in developing countries, how to promote them to further acquire crypto knowledge and learn crypto skills after receiving one-time free cryptocurrencies will also be one of the biggest challenges to the project vision.
2. Is iris recognition really evil?
In order to achieve “fair distribution of tokens to as many people as possible”, WorldCoin adopted the method of “iris mining”, in which no more than 80% of the token shares are issued to iris certified users and operators. Users only need to scan their iris to receive tokens for free.
In order to improve the accuracy and efficiency of iris recognition, WorldCoin launched dedicated Orb biometric devices, this is a basketball-size, silver, giant eye iris scanner (or monitor), cost up to $5000. The main function of Orb is to catch the details of users’ eyes and put them into a unique personal identification number.
However, even though WorldCoin claimed that it will only store the iris hash data used to check identity uniqueness through the application of blockchain zero-knowledge proof and other technologies, and will not store the original image of the iris, people’s concerns about privacy risks still increased.
What’s more, WorldCoin contracts offline promotion and other tasks to operators in different regions. Such a large amount of private data, handled by so many people, would inevitably raise questions.
After many coverages, the project was described as “WorldCoin wants to scan the iris of a billion people with free money” and other striking phrases. CoinDesk published a commentary on WorldCoin on October 26 titled “Why Everyone Is Mad at Sam Altman’s WorldCoin,” The article described WorldCoin as “sucking data out of users like a vampire squid.”
Sam Altman’s embrace of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the like is tantamount to saying “we’re going to use user data,” which is clearly contrary to the spirit of Web3. Facebook and Google have both been accused of abusing users’ private data, and this “data-hungry business model” does not belong to the new era.
Controlling a biometric database of billions is extremely dangerous.
So why does it have to be iris recognition? In the face of such a big debate, can we replace it with fingerprint identification or something else, which is more acceptable?
“Unfortunately, fingerprinting and other identification schemes are not enough to distinguish more than billions of people. If we use other identity solutions, the number of people who can determine a unique identity is probably only a few hundred thousand, which is not enough to support such a large identity system.” WorldCoin told ChainCatchers.
Promoting Worldcoin worldwide requires a huge database and an accurate identity system to prevent identity fraud, fakes and Witch Attack. High-resolution imaging is key to large-scale biometric systems, which is why they developed Orb with HD scanning capability using a high cost.
From a biological point of view, fingerprinting is not the most secure. Since 400 points can be collected from the iris, fingerprints can only provide 30 to 40.
The WorldCoin team said the iris scan was the best result after evaluating many different methods. Because compared with face recognition, fingerprints and DNA sequencing, iris recognition meets all three criteria — uniqueness, fraud-proof and ease of operation.
WorldCoin faces such a big controversy might be because it is the “first mover”.
In September 2013, the iPhone 5S was the first phone to make extensive use of fingerprint recognition. If we look back now, we can still find a lot of opposing voices. In those days, Apple faced no less public pressure than WorldCoin today. Only, this time it is an iris scan.
The moment fingerprinting became widely used, Pandora’s box of biometrics was opened. Perhaps people are more open to new technology than they think.
Of course, iris recognition, like all biometrics, faces privacy risks and other legal risks. WorldCoin currently operates in twelve countries across four continents, Africa, South America, Europe and Asia, through more than twenty operators. Most of them are developing countries and regions that have not yet established sound biometric information protection laws.
WorldCoin also specifically stated that it has no immediate plans to launch the program in the U.S. and China, possibly due to concerns about privacy in those two countries. WorldCoin still has a lot of work to do in this area as other countries put privacy legislation on the agenda in the future.
When asked how to protect users’ privacy, the WorldCoin team responded that they are aware of the risks of handing over the collection of biometric information to these small operators, and that WorldCoin will make the process as transparent as possible so users can see how the data is being used.
3. Remains to be seen
Overall, WorldCoin has done more to popularize crypto knowledge at this stage than the grand vision of “achieving fairness”. This is more of a revolution in crypto knowledge, because crypto knowledge has to be popularized before virtual tokens can be accepted by people who have the knowledge gaps. Orb operators in different locations educate users through lectures, social media sharing, and more.
However, WorldCoin also faces particular challenges, such as privacy protection, user retention, and sustainability of the economic model. Further testing will be needed after it goes live on the mainnet in a few months.