Founder of OpenAI, Sam Altman, has launched Worldcoin, his attempt at solving the sybil problem.
A Sybil Attack is essentially when one person pretends to be multiple people at the same time, in an attempt to gain more power than is allowed in a system. This is important for keeping blockchains decentralized, but also for much more regular applications such as voting in democratic elections.
Solving the sybil problem accomplishes two things:
1. It can improve current systems
2. It can unlock new systems
An example of a current system it can improve would be a referral system. Let’s say you were offered $5 for every email you could find that may generate a lead for your company. That would be a great deal, because you could just create unlimited emails to earn unlimited money, effectively sybil attacking the system.
An example of a new system it could unlock would be a global UBI, where each individual on the planet was distributed an equal amount of money every month.
Worldcoin was created to help both. To solve the sybil problem, people need to be able to prove that they are people, and this is what Worldcoin intends to do.
Imagine having to prove you were a person just to complete basic day to day tasks. Oh wait, we already do! It’s called a captcha, those puzzles so complicated that only a well-educated adult could solve. While they’re imperfect, they do a decent job of gatekeeping websites towards allowing only real humans. Captchas are becoming less reliable in the age of AI as the cost of almost everything decreases, including spam, scam and sybils. In the world of AI, the difficulty and importance of human verification scale together.
Here’s how Worldcoin works:
1. An orb pays you to scan your eyeball (your most unique feature)
2. Your iris code gets added to a Merkle Tree (and hopefully not some database somewhere)
3. Zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs) verify your iris code are part of that Merkle Tree, and thus you are a real human (no more captchas needed)
ZKPs are ways to prove that something is true, without revealing ANY additional information. With traditional KYC today, you prove that you are a human by showing your government ID. With ZKPs, you could prove that you are a human without having to do that.
The orb scans your eye, sends your iris code to a database, and then with the magic of Merkle Trees and ZKPs, you’re able to verify that your iris code is in that database without revealing anything else about your identity. For a very simple explainer on ZKPs and Merkle Trees, I recommend this awesome Youtube video.
On the surface, the idea of orbs that will scan the eyeballs of everybody on the planet feels extremely dystopian. It would definitely be more dystopian if it was being sold as selling your data to Worldcoin, but actually, the project is positioning itself as incentivizing humans to own their own data. That’s right, upon scanning your eyeball you will receive a Worldcoin airdrop, along with future token distributions.
It’s pretty clear that Sam Altman’s intention with this project is to help humans coordinate in the age of AI. First, Worldcoin presents a way to do meaningful global UBI in an age where many people’s jobs are being automated away. Second, it’s a way to have fair global elections. Worldcoin even cites “governance of AI” as one of its core use cases. It seems pretty clear that Sam Altman is afraid of what AI can do to the world. These use cases might not seem important today, but one day they may be. It sure seems that Sam believes they will.
The knee jerk reaction here is obviously the prospect of an exploit, backdoor, or simply that Worldcoin is lying when they claim “raw biometric data does not leave the orb devices (unless explicitly approved by the user for training purposes)”. This stands out as the biggest risk of the system: The fact that data can (even if they say it won’t) leave the device. Worldcoin claims that all of its software will be open sourced and that production of orbs will be “decentralized” but we are yet to see that step materialize.
There is no real technical innovation going on here, aside from the orb itself. Worldcoin is simply trying to use token incentives to create the first “decentralized” mass-scale network effect of identity. Everyone will just have a World ID that they use to receive airdrops and vote on the “governance of AI”.
As dystopian as this idea sounds, we do seem we’re headed in this direction regardless of the orbs. If you would ask me which world is less dystopian, one with or without eye-scanning orbs, I would probably say the world without the orbs. If you asked Sam, he would probably say the world with them.
I guess we’ll just have to trust him.
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