Worldcoin – distinguishing people from AI online

There are many dangers associated with the rise of artificial intelligence. One aspect deserving attention is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine if online activity – regardless of whether it is written text, audio or video – has been created by a human, as opposed to a bot, software program or AI.

It is widely feared that AI could take disinformation, for example in election campaigns, and ‘fake news’ to the next level.

Having the ability to verify that a given account is controlled by a real person therefore has many potential benefits in the online world, from building trust and credibility to enhancing security.

Those hoping to build decentralised governance mechanisms see it as a solution to prevent fraud in online voting.

Cybersecurity experts believe it can be an effective tool to replace the ubiquitous CAPTCHA tests (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) to prevent denial-of-service and Sybil attacks, as well as spam.

One venture that promises a solution to the so-called proof-of-personhood (PoP) problem online is Worldcoin, an identity network managed by a Cayman Islands foundation.

Worldcoin attracted widespread attention, and immediate criticism, when it launched in July 2023 with the objective of creating a global digital identification platform by combining biometric information, blockchain and cryptocurrency.

How does it work?

Worldcoin has three elements: a wallet app, the Orb, and the Worldcoin token.

To obtain a World ID, a user must download and install the Worldcoin app on a smartphone and then visit one of Worldcoin’s centralised locations. There a Worldcoin operator will scan the user’s iris with a specialised hardware called the Orb.   

The Orb scan then determines if the user is human and not already listed in Worldcoin’s database. Once those tests are passed, the Orb saves a unique personal identification code from the iris scan in the system and issues the World ID to the wallet.

The database does not store full iris scans, which are deleted, nor does it collect and associate any other personal information. The process is designed solely to prevent people from acquiring more than one World ID.

World ID holders are able to prove to third party applications that they are a unique human by using the app and what in cryptography is known as a zero knowledge proof: that they hold the private key corresponding to a public key in the database, without revealing the key itself.

In addition to using the World ID as proof of personhood, World ID holders can also use the app as a crypto wallet to transfer digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum and the Worldcoin (WLD) token.

To incentivise the signing-up process, credentialed ID holders receive a small amount, about $2, of WLD token for registering. Worldcoin’s cryptocurrency is further used as a fundraising tool to attract venture capital investors.

Tools for Humanity, the San Francisco- and Berlin-based company behind Worldcoin, raised $115 million in a funding round and initially reserved about 14% of all WLD tokens for investors.

Worldcoin also issues WLD token grants to third-party developers that build applications and help refine the technology.  

Ambitious vision

To describe the project as ambitious would be an understatement. Worldcoin aims to become a global application with larger plans for the age of AI.

Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, is one of its founders and backers. Altman described the project as “a global financial and identity network based on proof of personhood”.

He believes that AI is going to create much wealth but will also destroy many jobs. Altman has suggested Worldcoin could become a way to compensate those disintermediated by the new technology with some form of universal basic income. The revenue, he said, could come from future WLD token sales.

However, at a Worldcoin presentation in Cayman in December, the team behind the identity platform said no one is actively working on a universal basic income solution and this, together with a funding mechanism, would have to be developed in the future by others on top of the technology.

Worldcoin has so far signed up more than 2.6 million users and is rolling out scanning operations in 30 countries worldwide.

Challenges

The rollout of the app and the orbs to physically scan most peoples’ eyeballs is a daunting challenge, made even harder by the barrage of criticism the project received from the start.

An article in MIT Technology Review in April 2022 criticised how the project coerced people in developing countries into signing up and collected private information during the testing phase.

The company responded with a rebuttal, stating it does not collect personal user data and that its process only ensures users cannot sign up more than once. In addition, Worldcoin now states it has ironed out many of the kinks revealed in the early sign-up beta phase.

After launch certain governments, such as the UK and Germany, said they would look into Worldcoin’s practice of collecting biometric information from its citizens. Kenya banned it outright.

Some critics stated that scaling the project is just made more difficult by attaching it to crypto, which itself is facing acceptance and legitimacy issues in many countries.

Meanwhile, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin expressed his concerns about Worldcoin in a blog post.

He argued that the platform’s iris scans could potentially collect more private information than publicly declared, questioned the scalability and accessibility, and raised possible security issues relating to fake, stolen or rented World IDs.

Crucially, using biometric information is not the only way to solve the PoP problem online.

Buterin believes the issues could potentially be solved over time, but said Worldcoin may need to cooperate with other PoP projects.

The various solutions, including social trust networks or other cryptographic tools, must all balance practical ease, accessibility, decentralisation and security, as well as privacy and anonymity needs.

Some would argue that the issue is already sufficiently dealt with by third-party applications using centralised government-backed identity systems based on credit cards or passports. In other words, regular KYC.

Worldcoin and others claim this would make large sacrifices in terms of privacy and point to past hacks and data leaks of private information. There is also a fear that private data could be exploited by malevolent governments for surveillance.

Decentralisation

Moreover, most alternative PoP methods that attempt to enable decentralised governance mechanisms, seek to avoid centralised control by an operator and domination by wealthier users in online voting.  

While Worldcoin is currently still operating in a centralised manner, there are plans to decentralise in the future.

Tools for Humanity has developed both the Orb and the Worldcoin app and has a service provider arrangement with the Worldcoin Foundation. 

The Cayman-based foundation, which has a subsidiary for token issuance in the British Virgin Islands, is described as the initial steward of the protocol that will support and grow the Worldcoin community until it becomes self-sufficient.

Worldcoin states on its website that “it is intended to become a public network, with ownership by everyone”.

This could be done, for instance, by turning the Cayman foundation into a decentralised autonomous organization (DAO).

Citing the DAO Research Collective, Worldcoin says its Cayman set-up is “the most common structure currently in use by network and protocol DAOs”, because of the structure’s flexibility and suitability for longer term community governance alongside separate personhood, limited liability and tax efficiency.   

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