Not so much this week. Instead, headlines have focused on the global launch of another of his ventures, called Worldcoin: a metallic orb that scans your eyeballs, entering its unique biometric fingerprint onto the blockchain and paying you a cache of a bespoke cryptocurrency in exchange for that intimate data.
If you squint hard enough, the pitch almost makes sense. On an internet increasingly deluged by AI-generated content, the reasoning goes, it'll soon be hard to tell whether any given piece of material was created by a human or a computer. In that ambiguous information environment, the idea seems to be for Worldcoin to serve as a universal identity card that proves you're really human.
Of course, there are also many obvious tensions. That deluge of synthetic content, for instance, is largely being caused by Altman's OpenAI, so the whole thing feels a bit like a solution to a problem that he's actively creating. The project's verbiage is also muddy and wildly ambitious, saying it'll "enable global democratic processes" and "show a potential path to AI-funded [universal basic income] UBI," without any compelling explanation of how that might happen. And what's to say a person can't crank out synthetic content using a tool like ChatGPT and then sign it with their Worldcoin ID to make it look like it was created by a human?
The project has also already run into numerous reality problems. During its beta, reporters found that the company had been scanning people's eyes in the developing world without providing much in the way of informed consent, and that many people who had been scanned felt that they'd been cheated by the exchange. Another inconvenient detail that the company has refused to comment on: one of its earlier backers was the now-disgraced Sam Bankman-Fried, whose crypto exchange FTX exploded in spectacular fashion late last year.
Even elder statesmen of crypto seem skeptical; Vitalik Buterin, the founder of the Ethereum blockchain on which Worldcoin is based, criticized the project this week for what he characterized as issues around privacy, accessibility and security.
Perplexed by it all, I decided to seize the moment and find out it was like to get my own irises scanned. Venturing out in a torrential downpour, I entered a nondescript building that housed a coworking space the company is using to scan the public's eyeballs in New York City, where I met a friendly representative who cautioned me about yet another widely-reported shortcoming of the project: people in the United States don't actually get that crypto payment in exchange for their biometric data.
Exactly why that is remains a bit hazy. In a podcast interview earlier this week, Altman's Worldcoin cofounder Alex Blania was vague about why the payments aren't available in the US.
"Look, many of the details we can’t talk about here for the regulatory uncertainty in the United States," the German-born techster said. That may well be true; regulators in the UK are apparently already investigating the project.
I asked my host, half-jokingly, if I could still get the tokens — which would have been worth about $58 if I'd been able to actually get them — if I used a VPN. But he shot down that scheme, saying there are many ways to verify that I'm in the US — though interestingly enough, neither the app nor the orb operator asked for any ID beyond my phone number and iris scans.
In spite of the lack of payment, I decided to offer up my biometrics in the name of journalism. I stared down the shiny orb, which I later learned was about the weight of a light bowling ball when they let me heft it.
As the operator held the orb up to my eyes, I wondered what to expect. There's something semiotically loaded about orbs; in memes, we imagine wizards pondering them and world leaders caressing them in secretive rituals. Before Palantir was a powerful surveillance contractor, its namesakes were formidable orbs in the mythology of "Lord of the Rings" author JRR Tolkien, which granted bearers terrifying capacities for spying and manipulation.
But here in the quietly buzzing workspace contracted by Worldcoin, the process took less than a minute of me staring awkwardly into the metallic sphere. The orb made nary a sound, didn't visibly "blink," or really do anything satisfying at all — though I was assured that three separate types of cameras, including an infrared one, were peering back at me.
The whole thing was over faster than I would have imagined, a painless experience that felt less like an eye exam than waiting to be photographed by a friend without knowing when to say cheese.
Immediately after the scan was over, the app — which allows users to sign up and create their World IDs in conjunction with the orb — lit up, indicating that my irises had successfully been scanned into the database. As of press time, it includes just over two million retinal scans, meaning the company has currently scanned about two percent of a single percent of the world population.
Frustratingly, I can't access my iris scans using the app, which would be pretty cool. And neither the operator nor a Worldcoin representative answered questions about when the UBI aspect might be unveiled, though Altman himself told Reuters earlier this week that he doesn't see UBI becoming a regular thing on our planet until "very far in the future."
"We think that we need to start experimenting with things so we can figure out what to do," the co-founder told the news wire.
Experimenting is, of course, the name of the game in the still-wild worlds of AI and crypto. But when I schlepped my way out to get my iris scanned by a peculiar orb operated by a strange entity, I'll confess I was hoping for something tangible. Instead, I left with no crypto and not even, as far as I can tell, any way to stamp my content as created by a human.
But as always, Altman's promise is that all that is coming in the future. Eventually — after AI has rattled the economy to its core, presumably, destabilizing countless lives — the very people who caused all that chaos assure us that yet another scheme will save us all.
Until then, we'll apparently just have to wait.
Do you know anything about what's going on at Worldcoin? Shoot us an email — we can keep you anonymous.
Share This Article