Worldcoin Officially Launches Amid Fears Of Foul Play In Africa & Elsewhere

By  |  July 24, 2023

Worldcoin, the eyeball-scanning crypto project notably backed by Sam Altman, one of the frontrunners in the unfolding Artificial Intelligence (AI) race, has formally launched today after three years in the works. Fears and doubts have plagued the project throughout its existence, however.

In exchange for crypto (including bitcoin and a token known as Worldcoin that has no value or use as of yet), individuals are urged to have their biometric data collected, a process that involves having their eyeballs scanned by a spherical metallic orb. The project has registered over 2 million signups to date, per Worldcoin’s website, and plans to scale to 1,500 orbs this year in more than 35 cities around the world this year.

But the campaign to hand out crypto to people in exchange for scanning their irises using a futuristic device the size of a melon has caused some unease and drawn criticism owing to its dystopian overtones, and reports of concerning wrongdoings at the heart of the project drawn from investigations of its methods—notably in Africa and other less-developed parts of the world—have deepened scepticism. 

In Kenya and a few other African countries, including Sudan and Ghana, where Worldcoin has held programmes, there have been allegations that the project lacked transparency and deployed exploitative methods to aid its set-up in localities and harvest biometric data to feed its algorithm and train its AI. Similar reports also came out of Indonesia and Chile.

Investigations allege Worldcoin reps took advantage of vulnerable groups by conducting somewhat bizarre giveaways in disadvantaged communities where inhabitants were coaxed with talk of life-changing financial aid with little to no disclosure of the intent behind the undertaking. Worldcoin maintains it adheres to best practices and that the issues raised are isolated incidents.

The project, which intersects with AI and the enduring interests around cryptocurrencies, is on a mission to create a global ID, a global currency and an app that enables payment, purchases and transfers using its own token, along with other digital assets and traditional currencies, its founders say.

“Worldcoin is an attempt at global scale alignment,” the digital identity and crypto payments project co-founded by OpenAI Chief Executive Officer Sam Altman said in a statement Monday. “The journey will be challenging and the outcome is uncertain.”

All eyes on the Orb

As the world evolves into an age of increased interaction with artificial intelligence powered by neural networks, a conversation about the possible dangers of fake virtual identities is emerging. Industry players are analysing how a new standard for proof-of-personhood—to verify humans—could become very important in the future. Worldcoin has elements of that thinking in its roots.

To use the service, users must download its app, and then have their iris scanned using a silver orb that houses a custom optical system. Worldcoin’s CEO, Alex Blania, told TechCrunch in an interview that this offline capture component gives it an edge over platforms that try to address the proof-of-person problem with fully online elements because of how rapidly the online world is changing.

The AI buzz has boosted interest in Worldcoin, Altman emphasised in an interview with Bloomberg News. The project however faces a challenge beyond uneasy sentiments due to the present hostile regulatory climate for cryptocurrencies globally, characterized by lawsuits and crackdowns. Worldcoin’s token remains barred in the U.S., as concerns over cryptocurrency regulation have grown in recent months following some high-profile debacles in the form of FTX and Three Arrows Capital, to mention a few.

In the meantime, Worldcoin continues to forge ahead elsewhere, undeterred by regulatory uncertainty in some cases.

With Kenya firmly in its sights, for one, apparently on the back of the country’s history with mobile payments and crypto, Worldcoin stands have been spotted in at least two malls in the capital Nairobi – Two Rivers Mall and The Nextgen Mall – as confirmed by locals.

There are also reports of the same in the local media, one of which says Worldcoin outreach groups—comprising individuals in Worldcoin garb wielding the scanning equipment and soliciting users—are in as many as 16 locations across the capital. The project has also landed event sponsorships and engagements with universities to get the word out. Although official numbers for Kenya are unavailable, signups by locals are estimated to have run into a few hundred to thousands.

The project’s commercial end goal is still unknown at this time, though early predictions from market analysts suggest that the platform may adopt an enterprise approach that makes it the go-to identity solution in a coming new era.

However, Worldcoin’s biometric data collection and distribution practices, its awkward rewards system, the disproportionate distribution of tokens to its backers, and its ties to the ideologies and whims of the noxious cryptocurrency industry are just a few of the issues that continue to raise questions.

Featured Image Credits: Worldcoin

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