Worldcoin, the Sam Altman-backed oddball venture vying to use an eye-scanning metal orb to verify human identities, is reportedly trying to cut back on its creep factor. Taking a page out of Apple’s playbook, the company is reportedly planning to release a new version of its iris-scanning orb in multiple colors and form factors later this year according to a TechCrunch interview with Alex Blania, a cofounder of the company developing Worldcoin. Those design changes are reportedly intended to make the at times ominous looking orb appear “much more friendly” and temper the device’s dystopian perception among some of its critics.
What is Worldcoin’s Orb?
Worldcoin imagines a not too distant future where the internet is awash with artificial intelligence-powered spam bots posting and posing as humans online. In that world, reliable identity verification becomes essential in order to differentiate humans from machines.
Worldcoin tries to solve that problem with its basketball-sized “Orb” device, which scans a human’s eyeball and creates a numerical code based on unique features of their iris pattern. That code is then used to generate a one-of-a-kind “World ID,” which Worldcoin envisions being used to login into websites and verify human identity throughout the internet. Humans interested in having their eyes scanned can search for orb locations spread in offices and other places across 11 counties.Access management firm Okta has already begun offering a “Sign in with Worldcoin” option on its services.
Worldcoin argues this biometrics-based identity verification method is actually more secure and privacy preserving than other alternatives, such as sign in with Google or Facebook, because the WorldID isn’t linked to other personal identifiers. People trading their eye scans for a World ID can do so without ever providing their name, email, address, or other identifiers that are often targets for criminals.
In some countries, Worldcoin offers users a small chunk of its own WLD cryptocurrency token in exchange for an iris scan as a sign-up incentive. Worldcoin says more than 3.1 million people spread out across 120 countries had verified their identity with an Orb as of mid December.
— Sam Altman (@sama) July 26, 2023
But Worldcoin’s global signup surge has faced some obstacles. In the US, regulatory uncertainty around cryptocurrency prevented the company from offering its coin in exchange for eye scans, which may have dampened signup interest. Worldcoin also faced fierce governmental resistance in Kenya, which recently banned the company months after regulators reportedly ordered it to quit collecting iris scans. As of December, Worldcoin told TechCrunch it was no longer offering its Orb-verification services in India, Brazil, or France.
When reached for comment by PopSci, Worldcoin confirmed its “proof of personhood” services had been scaled back in India but said users there continue to download the app. The company did not comment directly on identity verification offerings in France and Brazil.
“Orb-verified proof of personhood services have been temporarily scaled back [in India] as the protocol works to develop and roll out a bespoke, safe and orderly process that sufficiently meets the demand for World ID in India,” the Worldcoin spokesperson said.
Now, around six months after its official launch, Worldcoin is looking to revamp its Orb design with an eye toward approachability. Speaking with TechCrunch this week, Blania, the Tools for Humanity cofounder, said the Orb’s current chrome, floating eye-ball looking design predated his involvement at the company. Blania said people were “obsessed” with the Orb’s initial design, but not always in a good way. The new iterations of the device, which the co-founder said should launch sometime in the first half of 2024, will look friendlier and resemble an “Apple product.”
“The new orb is coming and the next iterations will look quite different,“ Blania told TechCrunch. Worldcoin declined to comment when PopSci asked for more details regarding the Orb design. Instead, they pointed us to this tweet.
New orbs are coming ⚪️
— Worldcoin (@worldcoin) January 25, 2024
Worldcoin seeks to cushion potential AI displacement
Cofounded by Blania, entrepreneur Max Novendstern, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Worldcoin is intended to solve a problem created in part by Altman’s other, more financially successful enterprise. Aside from its more immediate identity verification use case, Worldcoin imagines its WorldID could one day be used to provide a redistributed, universal basic income (UBI) to help sustain workers who’ve lost their jobs to future advanced AI systems. In theory, Altman vaguely believes the WLD token users received in exchange for their eye scans could increase in value over time as more people sign-up around the world. The exact economics underlying that idea aren’t entirely clear.
“The hope is that as people want to buy this token, because they believe this is the future, there will be inflows into this economy,” Altman said during an interview with CoinDesk. “New token-buyers is how it gets paid for, effectively.”
Ultimately, Altman beelvies that crypto-based UBI could act as an economic cushion to offset the disruptive effects of “artificial general intelligence,” a term used in the industry to describe AI models capable of outperforming humans and exhibiting human-like cognitive abilities. Ironically, Altman’s OpenAI is attempting to make AGI a reality.
None of those utopian or dystopian end goals will really mean much though if Worldcoin can’t dramatically increase the number of people handing over eye scans. With regulatory and privacy scrutiny around biometric collection ramping up, a friendlier, less sci-fi invoking design may theoretically be what Worldcoin needs to convince users to willfully share sensitive biometrics data.