Does Worldcoin Need a Reevaluation? Understanding Sam Altman’s Crypto-AI-UBI Experiment

There’s lots to admire about the ex-OpenAI CEO’s crypto startup, despite relentless “techlash” criticism.

AccessTimeIconNov 20, 2023 at 8:39 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 9, 2024 at 1:56 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconNov 20, 2023 at 8:39 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 9, 2024 at 1:56 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconNov 20, 2023 at 8:39 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 9, 2024 at 1:56 a.m. UTC

There’s a shakeup happening in tech, and crypto is a part of it. On Friday, OpenAI co-founder and CEO Sam Altman was unceremoniously deposed. The board of directors for the organization, which was founded as a non-profit and later added a corporate, profit-driven division led by Altman, used fighting words in its initial announcement of the termination.

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Altman, apparently, “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” Little else was said, leading to speculation. OpenAI, the developers of several artificial intelligence tools, including the fastest app to gain a million users, ChatGPT, is often called “the most important startup” in the world.

Crypto, like nearly every other industry, has been testing the AI waters. This embryonic tech is being forecasted to change how developers build and audit apps, how traders make portfolios and how users interact with it all. And one of crypto’s most important AI pushes, Worldcoin, has an Altman connection.

Worldcoin, a protocol for universal, digital IDs being built by Tools for Humanity, a company Altman co-founded, initially saw its token collapse on the news. Today, it’s up double digits after Altman was scooped up by Microsoft to lead internal AI R&D — a remarkable vote of confidence at a moment when the backstory for the firing hasn’t been entirely, publicly filled in.

It’s also a signal that when Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI, it was investing in Altman. In a lot of ways, the Worldcoin speculators too are betting on the AI pioneer. While OpenAI and Worldcoin are entirely distinct entities, there are close parallels between the two outside of the mutual point of connection in Altman. (There is no reason to believe Microsoft will have any dealings with WRD.)

Both AI and the crypto-based universal basic income (UBI) Worldcoin is ultimately building towards are both largely unproven technologies. And both have similarly skeptical — if distantly fascinated — audiences, with some who think these technologies could independently tear society apart. They’re moonshots, meant to catapult humanity as a whole forward.

And to a large degree, Worldcoin has been unfairly maligned. When announced in 2019, the world was shaken by the project’s dystopian trappings. Not only is it founded by a man who many think could become the world’s first trillionaire (who is building an island bunker), but the World ID system works by scanning people’s irises using a metal sphere called the Orb. It’s straight out of sci-fi.

Putting aside appearances, the project itself has a lot going on. Some of the smartest people I know in tech are enthralled by what’s actually being built. Worldcoin developers are working on zero knowledge (ZK) cryptography solutions for safer biometric scanning. No one has yet cracked persistent personhood online. While the project’s leadership, including CEO Alex Blania, are sometimes spoken about in hushed tones.

Worldcoin may end up being a tremendously expensive blunder, as any startup could. But there’s a difference between evaluating a company on its merits and its aesthetics. And, to steal a phrase from internet-famous economist/blogger Tyler Cowen, most of the conversations around Worldcoin are just “mood affiliation” — people saying what they think others want to hear.

It’s entirely possible, for instance, that everyone I know who likes Worldcoin is just into the idea of a project that is being built as a precautionary measure in anticipation of when (or if) AIs develop the ability to create their own real or fake virtual identities and drown out humanity … because they take Asimov too seriously.

Altman, who was mostly known for his stint leading massively successful startup incubator Y Combinator at the time Worldcoin was announced, saw his reputation explode after becoming the face of OpenAI. And his standing has only seemed to increase after getting laid off.

He’s controversial, too. Some call Altman a “generational talent,” one of the greatest fundraisers in Silicon Valley. Others say he has “failed up.” Loopt, a mobile app and his start in tech, didn’t gain traction but got him a $43.4 million exit. As President, YC grew quickly under Altman but is also said to have lost its soul. In 2014, he spent less than a Scaramucci as CEO of Reddit.

He’s also thought to be in talks to found a chip foundry to compete with NVIDIA, with backing from controversial investors in the Middle East and China. He’s the largest shareholder in Humane AI, which is building a non-phone, mobile AI “pin,” but has been largely ambivalent about its launch.

In other words, Altman’s association with Worldcoin is a matter of interest but there’s zero chance he’s very much involved. Other factors, like the privacy concerns raised by the government of Kenya, the onboarding concerns from MIT Technology Review have raised and concerns over the system's proprietary tech, are more salient. Citizen journalists have tried prying into (aka a "decentralized audit") the Orb, for instance, with limited success.

It’s no secret that tech is in a transitional moment. The so-called “techlash” is waning, in part because the promise of AI now seems revolutionary – when this time last year the tech barely seemed feasible. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and deserve scrutiny. There are some technologists who view Altman as a symbol of progress, who don’t even want to wait the 30-days for OpenAI’s new interim CEO’s internal review of Altman’s firing to join his camp.

And in this moment, Worldcoin could be seen as an imperfect barometer of these competing technophilic and techno-skeptical currents in society. All I ask, before you decide to love or hate the Orb — or invest in it, for that matter — is to see what it can do.

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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.