An Orb, a Token and Money for Everyone: Worldcoin’s CEO on Crypto’s Most Daring Project

Alex Blania on collaborating with OpenAI's Sam Altman on a universal basic income for eight billion people.

AccessTimeIconJul 10, 2023 at 4:20 p.m. UTC
Updated Jul 13, 2023 at 2:41 p.m. UTC
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Some Web3 projects are trying to create a better cryptocurrency. Some are tackling the problem of self-sovereign identity. Some are trying to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s an AI-created fake. Some are building systems for better governance. Some are trying to improve the development of AI through the principles of decentralization. Some are trying to reduce global inequalities.

Worldcoin is trying to do all of the above.

The goal is simple and modest: To create a system that will, eventually, freely distribute tokens to all eight billion people on the planet, as a form of universal basic income (UBI). But because the rise of AI will make it tricky to figure out who is human and who’s a digital fake, Worldcoin first needs to create a system that lets people -- all people, across the globe -- prove that they are in fact human beings.

To do this, they invented a physical device called “The Orb” that can scan your eyeball. The goal is for The Orb to eventually scan every eyeball of every human who walks the Earth. And at some point, if all goes well, everyone will have access to open-source and decentralized financial tools.

If Worldcoin was the brainchild of some random crypto bro, maybe it could be laughed away as a delusion of grandeur. But the project has real intellectual heft. It was co-founded by Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI (creator of ChatGPT), who’s arguably the most central player in the development of AI. Altman suspects that the world will change forever if -- or when -- AI becomes so advanced that it achieves AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence, meaning it truly surpasses the abilities of humans.

Perhaps that world is a terrifying dystopia that wipes out the species, Skynet-style. But it’s also possible that AGI unlocks wondrous leaps of productivity, which could confer financial benefits to the world. As Marc Andreessen recently argued in an uber-bullish essay on AI, “Productivity growth throughout the economy will accelerate dramatically, driving economic growth, creation of new industries, creation of new jobs, and wage growth, and resulting in a new era of heightened material prosperity across the planet.”

If AGI is doing all the work, maybe we humans could enjoy lives of leisure, spending our time writing poetry or singing songs or -- more likely -- arguing on social media. And if AGI really does somehow benefit society in a meaningful way, how do we equitably spread the bounty to the masses? Enter UBI (a popular idea in Silicon Valley for coping with a world of automation). Enter Worldcoin.

You can argue that this is not only the most ambitious startup in crypto, but one of the most audacious projects in all of history. It feels like a dorm-room hypothetical. “It sounded absolutely ridiculous,” admits Alex Blania, who first heard the idea in 2019, when he was then a 25-year-old genius studying theoretical physics. Altman had emailed Blania to suss out his interest in joining the project. “I honestly didn't take it seriously for quite a while,” says Blania. But he drove to San Francisco for an interview; he’s now the co-founder and CEO of Tools for Humanity, Worldcoin's parent company.

For the first year of Worldcoin’s existence, Blania and his team focused on research. They built prototypes. In 2021, they announced The Orb. Then they deployed it in the field. The project now claims to have 1.8 million signups; the ultimate goal is 8 billion. (Full disclosure: CoinDesk’s David Z. Morris finds this prospect truly alarming.)

And if this happens? If they actually pull off this wild plan, giving everyone on the planet access to self-sovereign identity and universal basic income? When I ask him that during our recent Zoom interview, Blania is almost at a loss for words, thinking that this moment would represent “one of the most profound technological shifts that has ever happened.”

Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What was your reaction when Sam pitched you the idea for Worldcoin?

Alex Blania: I honestly didn't take it seriously for quite a while. That’s my honest answer. I think Max [Novendstern, another co-founder] and Sam wrote a two or three-page document that described a couple of ideas. That’s the stage it was at.

An inside view of the Orb, Worldcoin's custom hardware that makes cryptographic IDs based on iris scans. (Worldcoin)
An inside view of the Orb, Worldcoin's custom hardware that makes cryptographic IDs based on iris scans. (Worldcoin)

What was the gist of that document?

The streams of thought were that, one, AGI is going to happen. It’s going to disrupt society in a meaningful way. And Sam already had the conviction that UBI will eventually need to happen, and it might be one of the most important things for society.

Two, Sam is actually a big believer in crypto as a whole, just very skeptical about many of the things that happened last year in the industry. And one thing he has seen is that people always underestimate the importance of network effects, and how wild and profound they are once they play out. So many of the things we need [such as cryptocurrency] are already there, and we just need to scale it to many, many more people to actually get adoption going.

Sounds so simple!

So simple, right? And then the last paragraph was around, what if we could just launch a token to everyone? [Editor’s note: Due to regulatory concerns, Worldcoin tokens are not currently planned for the United States.] Just for being a human being, and align incentives to grow the network really, really quickly. And as a result, we would bootstrap a non-government and truly open identity and financial network.

And it sounded absolutely ridiculous. But back then I thought, well, [if this fails] I can always go back and get another job, so why don't I actually try it?

How would you describe the goal of Worldcoin?

The goal of Worldcoin is to launch a currency by giving ownership to every human being. And as a result, give them world ID and give them access to decentralized financial tools.

I honestly didn't take it seriously for quite a while

How does it work?

So when you sign up as a user, right now, you basically download an app that’s called World App, which is a non-custodial wallet. You download the app. You show up in front of a physical device, and that physical device basically issues you your World ID, which is a kind of a digital identity that you can use to anonymously verify the different services.

Once you’ve done that, [in the future] you receive ownership in the actual token every week by just being part of it. These are the three things. So World ID, World App, and Worldcoin. [Editor’s note: Worldcoin later reiterated that the token is not currently planned for the United States, due to regulatory concerns.]

Why is proving identity so central to all of this?

The problem is very simple. The problem is you need to make sure that every human being can get a unique identity that’s completely privacy-preserving. That's the task. And government identities simply do not work for that, because they might work well in the United States, they might work well in Europe, but much of the world does not have an actual verifiable digital identity.

Right, and that brings us to The Orb. You mentioned that a user needs to show up, in person, at a physical device, for an eyeball scan. Why is this necessary?

At first, we really did not want to solve identity, because the idea itself was so ambitious. But we realized that there's just no way around it. So when we think of proving identity, there are three big concepts, in terms of how you do it: You have a web of trust, you have of course government KYC [such as passports], and then you can use all kinds of different biometrics.

And we built prototypes for all three of these areas. That’s what we did the first year.

You guys went with biometric. Why?

Many of the systems that are live today will get quite challenged in a world of [improving AI]. It’s going to be very easy to fake things on the internet. Asking someone to do certain tasks, like CAPTCHA, or a more complicated form of CAPTCHA, will eventually break. You fundamentally need to bridge to the physical world, and measure what it means to be a human. And that’s why The Orb.

The Orb has been, ah, to put it lightly, “polarizing,” especially on crypto Twitter.

I think it’s one of the biggest discussion points about the project. On the one hand, some people in crypto just hate it, and are like, “Oh my God, this is so terrible, how can you call it The Orb?” But on the other hand, everyone talks about it, and it somehow sticks, right?

You’re at least giving Twitter great content! So thank you for that.

Sam's favorite quote about Worldcoin, which he gave me in the first meeting, was that the biggest risk of Worldcoin is that no one cares.

People care! And people, of course, are worried about what The Orb means for surveillance and privacy. How do you respond to these concerns?

So my high-level response is that something like World ID will eventually exist, meaning that you will need to verify [that you are human] on the internet, whether you like it or not. I think that's certainly going to happen with the progress in AI. It’s probably going to happen in the next couple of years.

And Worldcoin, I think, is the only path that we currently have that can get to that level of being accepted by the powerful players, and still be completely privacy-preserving and not rely on government infrastructure. And it’s all open source -- all of those things that crypto theoretically loves.

Why couldn’t something like facial recognition work, like we have with the iPhone?

With FaceID on the iPhone, that’s just verifying that it’s you showing up again. It’s proving the same person is using the phone. That’s a pretty easy task to solve, because it’s very hard for me to look exactly like you. It’s a one-to-one comparison.

But with Worldcoin, you have the opposite problem. When one user signs up to Worldcoin, you need to compare that one user against everyone else that has already signed up. So the task becomes not, “Do I look exactly like you,” but rather “Do I look like a new human being in the network?” Mathematically, you need much more information about each human being to solve that problem. And if you don’t have information about each user, then you will not be able to make those comparisons after tens of millions of people signed up. You just hit a wall.

So if you want to solve this Proof of Personhood problem -- this unique human being amongst a billion people problem -- with just a face camera or a Face ID or something like that, you would fail after tens of millions of signups. The iris is very unique. It’s very hard to fake. It’s pretty stable over time. It has many properties that make it the best way to solve the problem.

[Note: At this point on the Zoom call, Rebecca Hahn, the Chief Communications Officer for Tools for Humanity (Worldcoin’s parent company) jumps in to clarify what The Orb is *not* collecting.]

Rebecca Hahn: What’s happening is that The Orb captures images of your iris, and then creates a code that’s a unique identifier. The identifier says that you’re human and that you’re unique. Not that you’re Rebecca or Jeff or male or female or any other characteristic. It’s really those two points, human and unique.

You currently have 1.8 million signups. Given what you just said The Orb captures, does this mean you don’t know anything about these signups except that they’re unique and human? You don’t know that 30% are from Europe, or 55% are male, and so on?

Alex Blania: We can count which Orbs [in different locations] did how many signups, and things like that. So there’s kind of metadata from the actual signup process. But the most important piece is that you show up in front of The Orb, and the first thing it does is it actually verifies that you're an actual human being.

There are many sensors. There’s a thermal camera. There’s a 3D time-of-flight camera. These are checking that you are not a display, but an actual human being. And then the imaging happens and an iris code is calculated, as Rebecca just alluded to.

It gets signed by The Orb, and then a uniqueness check happens in the cloud. And this is the cool part -- the uniqueness check is separated from the user knowledge proofs. Basically, the user just proves that they’re included in that set of unique other users without actually releasing their information or the key or anything, right?

You end up in a situation where you have a pseudonymous unique identifier that you can use across different platforms. And you don't even have a global identifier, by the way. It’s all with the user. So you, a user, can decide how much you want to share with different platforms.

Rebecca Hahn: So part of the conversation is that maybe years from now, there’s this world where there’s a distribution of the financial upside from AI. But then today, right now, as basic as it seems, there’s a world where you can incorporate World ID into Twitter and then it solves a lot of problems.

You haven’t used these words, but you’re essentially trying to solve Self-Sovereign ID, or SSID. Is that right?

It's a much deeper shift than just the social network, than Facebook

Alex Blania: Yes.

Again, simple! To wrap up, let’s imagine a future where you’ve succeeded. You’ve succeeded perfectly in everything you’re trying to build. You’ve done it. You’ve cracked the code. World ID and Worldcoin is everywhere. Universal basic income is distributed to everyone on the planet. What does that world look like?


[Longer pause.]

Alex Blania: I mean, honestly, I think going that far and making predictions is super, super hard, right? Because as soon as we cross, say, three billion signups, that is probably one of the most profound technological shifts that has ever happened.

Because it's a much deeper shift than just the social network, than Facebook. You have a network that has identity, and it has fundamental money primitives in it. It's a profound shift. So making predictions… I think is pretty hard.

But I will talk about a couple of things that excite me, and I think can happen.

Sure, I’ll take it.

Alex Blania: So, starting with crypto. I was early into crypto; I read the Bitcoin whitepaper a couple of weeks after it came out. [Editor’s note: In 2008, Blania would have been around 14 years old.] This was super inspiring. This idea that you had a decentralized financial network.

Back then the idea was around peer-to-peer cash. Now we just say it's a store-of-value, but back then the idea was different.

So I think one thing that is truly exciting about what can happen with Worldcoin is that, if you go that far [in the future], is that one of the things that will happen is you’ll see actual peer-to-peer usage. And it might not even be Worldcoin, right?

It’s just that these users actually end up with public and private keys and then identity. So they will just start using crypto in their daily life. Similar to how Tesla accelerated the transition to electric cars, I think Worldcoin will accelerate the transition to all of those products quite drastically.

I think that itself is inspiring. It’s exciting. And I do think whatever will happen around [AI development] and Worldcoin will get pretty cool. Meaning, hopefully, Worldcoin users will actually have influence over the development of some of the largest [AI] systems that get deployed in the world.

And if we get to 8 billion users, you will certainly log in and you will actually just get UBI through your World ID.

All of this is so profound I cannot even… What do you think will happen?

You’re the expert! I’m just along for the ride. But I can’t wait to find out.

UPDATE 7/13/23; 10:40 a.m. ET: Clarifies Blania's role as CEO of Tools for Humanity, Worldcoin's parent company.

Edited by Ben Schiller.


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