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Silicon Valley's latest hype: Eyeball-scanning silver orbs to confirm you're human

Worldcoin has created a silver orb that scans people's eyeballs in an effort to authenticate every human being in the world.
Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Worldcoin has created a silver orb that scans people's eyeballs in an effort to authenticate every human being in the world.

Silicon Valley has a new shiny toy.

It's a silver orb outfitted with eyeball-scanning cameras intended to distinguish humans from machines in the era of ever-developing artificial intelligence.

In an office in Santa Monica, Calif., I sit on a small couch waiting to prove my humanity, peering directly at a spherical object that has been compared to a "decapitated robot head."

I take out my phone to pull up the orb's app and thumb quickly through the disclaimers. I'm at least 18 years old. I agree, though with some real trepidation, that the company can siphon up my biometric data.

About 15 seconds later, the orb emits a few high-pitched chime sounds to indicate that the photos of my irises have authenticated me.

The iris-scanning orbs are part of a project called Worldcoin that is attempting to solve what is known in cryptocurrency circles as the "proof of personhood" problem.

In plain English: being able to prove that someone hiding behind a cryptocurrency account is not an impersonator or a bot.

Tools for Humanity, the company behind Worldcoin, was co-founded in 2019 by Sam Altman, the tech entrepreneur who runs ChatGPT. On its website, Tools for Humanity provides precious little information about itself beyond its vague and lofty vision of trying to "ensure a more just economic system."

Supporters say digital IDs using iris scans could one day be used to log in to every online account, weed out bots on social media and even vote in elections and allow governments to quickly send out aid — all things the project's backers say could get more complicated in the age of artificial intelligence.

"As artificial intelligence gets more advanced, it becomes both much more difficult to tell humans from bots apart online, but also becomes much more important to do so," said Tiago Sada, the head of product for orb developer Tools for Humanity.

Molly White, a researcher who studies the cryptocurrency world at Harvard University's Library Innovation Lab, said using sci-fi-looking orbs as a marketing strategy appears to be paying off.

"I think they very much leaned into this dystopian, cyberpunk design to get headlines, and frankly it's worked pretty well," she said. "The orb is a bit of a gimmick. There's really no reason the iris scanner and the associated hardware needs to be a shiny chrome orb."

Worldcoin claims the hardware is not saving the iris data. But its orbs have sparked widespread privacy concerns.

This Worldcoin orb sits in the Bright Moments gallery in Venice Beach, California.
Grace Widyatmadja / NPR
/
NPR
This Worldcoin orb sits in the Bright Moments gallery in Venice Beach, California.

The orb prompts a raid in Kenya

In recent weeks, Worldcoin backers have held eyeball-scanning events around the world. From Chile to Indonesia to Kenya, thousands of people have formed lines for the chance to get their irises scanned in exchange for an allotment of Worldcoin's digital currency equivalent to about 50 U.S. dollars.

In Nairobi, Kenya's capital, some people who lined up said in local interviews that they were unemployed and heard about the project as a way to make a quick buck, unaware that their biometric data was being hoovered up.

Recently, Kenyan authorities raided Worldcoin's Nairobi warehouse, citing a "lack of clarity on the security and storage" of residents' eyeball scans.

Company officials have said they have paused ID verifications in Kenya as they "work with local regulators to address their questions."

Elsewhere in the world, in the European Union and the United Kingdom, officials have also opened investigations into Worldcoin and its data collection practices.

Questions about Worldcoin's strategy of boosting sign-ups with cash handouts have been swirling since MIT Technology Review published an investigation in 2022 finding that the project's representatives were recruiting people to be scanned in developing countries, where, as the publication reported, "it's just cheaper and easier to run this kind of data collection operation ... where people have little money and few legal protections."

While Worldcoin has held events scanning eyeballs from New York to San Francisco, the project's digital currency is currently unavailable in the United States.

You may have had your irises scanned already

Sada, of Tools for Humanity, said from Berlin that the company welcomes the scrutiny that its eyeball-scanning hardware is attracting.

He said iris scans are already common at airports, and Apple's new virtual reality headset recognizes irises to allow users to log in to accounts. So despite the skepticism, he argues, there is growing acceptance.

"I remember when Face ID first became available on iPhones. I remember a lot of my friends were like, 'I'm never going to get an iPhone again,'" Sada said. "But they did."

Others say the orbs are unlikely to be wholeheartedly embraced in large numbers — and likely for good reason.

Cryptographer David Chaum, who is considered the father of online anonymity, said he has many worries about the Worldcoin project, pointing out that even if the original images of people's eyeballs are deleted from the orbs, there is likely a way to re-create the irises using the data the company does store.

"It's scary for a company to have a database of that much genetic information," Chaum said. "We don't know exactly why yet, but it could be bad. You kind of feel it in your bones."

Chaum, who said he is developing an alternative way to solve online identity issues, said any Worldcoin data breach could be catastrophic.

"If that data gets leaked, it could be used to impersonate you or blame things on you," Chaum said. "It could lead to identity theft at a really irrecoverable, deep level."

Meanwhile, the company's actual objective has bounced around, depending on the Silicon Valley hype cycle du jour.

When the company first emerged, in 2019, at the height of crypto mania, it said it wanted to help redistribute crypto's vast wealth to the masses.

Now, with AI being all the craze, it says it wants to do something else: authenticate every person in the world.

Other skeptics wonder whether the world-saving statements and silver orb demos are all a distraction from another possible desired result: inflating the value of the project's cryptocurrency.

Tools for Humanity has said that a quarter of the digital coins that it is distributing have already been set aside for the venture capitalists and others backing the company, which has already raised more than $500 million, according to analytics firm PitchBook.

"The actual plan for what the network will do is very hand-wavy and kind of incomplete," Harvard's White said. "It seems like the goal is to gather as much biometric data as possible and promote this cryptocurrency token they just released."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.