On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that it has learned that Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, is co-founding a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin that will try and convince people to scan their retinas with a large silver orb in order to receive tokens.
“I’ve been very interested in things like universal basic income and what’s going to happen to global wealth redistribution and how we can do that better,” Altman told Bloomberg. “Is there a way we can use technology to do that at global scale?”
Co-founder Alexander Blania, a former theoretical physics student at the California Institute of Technology, told Bloomberg that Worldcoin wants to help as many people have cryptocurrency as possible because "so many people around the world don't have access to financial systems yet."
Key to this scheme is a scanning device, which Bloomberg described as a "silver-colored spherical gizmo the size of a basketball," that will collect biometric information and spit out a unique identifier as an ID component to the Worldcoin system. In this way, Worldcoin sounds somewhat similar to the World Food Program’s Building Blocks program, which uses retina scans and the blockchain to distribute aid to refugees and has been criticized as furthering a kind of crypto-colonialism.
There are currently 20 prototypes of the eye-scanning orb, which each cost $5000, and according to Bloomberg Worldcoin says it is already testing them out on a small scale in “various cities.” Needless to say, if you have any information about these orbs, or have a photo of one in your city, please get in touch.
Motherboard sent requests for comment directed at Altman to OpenAI and Y Combinator, but did not receive an immediate response.
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Worldcoin sounds pie-in-the-sky, but reportedly has some serious cash behind it. The company recently raised $25 million in funding according to Bloomberg, and has backing from Andreessen Horowtiz, a tech-focused venture capital firm that was an early investor in Coinbase and Facebook.
Altman has been involved with the project since 2019, which is when rapper Azaelia Banks began posting Instagram stories about moonlighting as a creative director for Worldcoin and namechecking Altman’s involvement. Bloomberg did not report any potential connection between Worldcoin and Banks, and Motherboard uncovered the connection in her Instagram posts.
"This is a cryptocurrency product. The plan is for this to be a hardware wallet for cryptocurrencies that also serves as an ultimate form of identification," Banks wrote in one Instagram story where she held a Worldcoin engraved with a QR code, encryption, Sam Altman’s name, and three holes to thread a string through. "We eventually plan for this item to serve as a passport, drivers license, credit card/wallet, employing the users own biometrics (DNA/heartbeat) as its passcode, making it completely fraud free. this version will simply act as a hardware wallet for cryptocurrencies with an accompanying facial recognition software ala China's Smilepay."
On November 6, 2019, Banks posted to Instagram another image of a Worldcoin with a caption that read "Spirit, Citizenship, Freedom. A New Identity System. Beyond Documentation. Beyond Government.. Worldcoin."
Banks did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment sent over Instagram DM.
All of this makes sense given Altman’s fixation on universal basic income. In a 2019 interview, Altman said he believed using cryptocurrency as the basis of a global universal basic income would result in a system "more powerful than any government on Earth" that could "make this gigantic network that everyone believes in, and you can do redistribution outside the control of any government."
What advocates for distribution systems dependent on corporate systems fail to explain, however, is why we should trade a distribution system built on social programs and minimally accountable to the public for a private one that responds first and foremost to other corporations, investors, and capital flows, long before the concerns of the public are ever considered.
Most conceptions of UBI projects are little more than schemes to undermine universal public goods and services, replacing them instead with a stipend that encourages people to look to the market for healthcare, housing, transportation, and other necessary goods and services that markets currently fail to adequately provide for millions of people. It’s not clear how Worldcoin will be any different, let alone rise to meet the lofty rhetoric being offered here.