We live in an era in which bots regularly masquerade as humans online. Ours is an age in which identity theft and fraud plague online interactions, and where one’s right to privacy and sanctuary are regularly violated with impunity by both government and corporate actors.
In today’s world of artificial intelligence (AI), bots can solve CAPTHA puzzles and defeat other attempts to verify humanness. AI programs can create complex deepfake images and writings indistinguishable from work created by individuals. So how can people interacting in cyberspace prove that they are not only human, but a unique and particular person? And ideally, do so while retaining anonymity, i.e., without revealing exactly which real person is acting and without giving away personal details? This challenge is known as the proof-of-personhood (PoP) or unique human problem.
The WorldCoin Foundation is trying to solve the problem of PoP, but some critics aren’t buying it.
WorldCoin was founded in 2019 by Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAi, whose stated mission is to “create safe AGI [artificial general intelligence] that benefits all humanity.” WorldCoin’s objectives include “establish[ing] universal access to the global economy…,” “becom[ing] the world’s largest human identity and financial network,” and “establishing a place for all of us to benefit in the age of AI.”
WorldCoin anticipates a world in which AI-enabled robots have displaced humans in the workplace, and that governments around the world will need to provide humans with some minimum level of financial support, known as universal basic income (UBI). To avoid fraud, the hypothetically billions of UBI recipients would need to prove not only that they are human but also that they are unique (so that one person doesn’t receive multiple UBI allotments). Still today, a substantial minority of people on this planet have neither bank accounts nor the government issued ID and other documentation necessary to get one.
To accomplish these goals, WorldCoin takes a biometric scan of the human eye in order to create a “WorldID,” a cryptographic hash (a unique and non-replicable mathematical algorithm). Other than this hash, WorldCoin asserts that no biometric data is transmitted from or retained by the “Orbs,” specially designed cameras intended to be deployed at locations all over the world, which capture the images needed to make the WorldID unique to each person.
Critics, however, warn that WorldCoin’s technology poses risks. Vitalek Buterin, the co-founder of Ethereum, identifies four categories of potential risks: 1) privacy, i.e., that, despite assurances to the contrary, Orbs could be maliciously hacked and made to release data; 2) accessibility, i.e., the need for very large numbers of Orbs distributed around the world to scan billions of people; 3) centralization, which in theory could allow WorldCoin to create a backdoor and misuse or sell data, and even arbitrarily create fake human identities; and 4) security, e.g., the possibility of using 3D printing or other technology to create fake people and sell WorldIDs. Buterin concedes that WorldCoin is aware of and is addressing these issues in a better way than previous attempts at creating PoP applications.
There is also the yuck factor. The prospect of having one’s irises scanned by one of WorldCoin’s shiny-yet-sinister looking metallic Orbs in order to be provided an indecipherable number to exist as a human being and engage in economic, social, and political processes feels dreadful. It sounds like dystopian science fiction.
I write in my new book Why America Matters, “If a technology exists, then governments will exploit it. Moral implications are considered only rarely. If government can better track its citizens and use technology to keep them under control, they will, unless otherwise prevented. … If China and other illiberal countries can surveil not just their own citizens at home and abroad, but eventually everyone in the world, why should the United States fail to do the same? Doesn’t this put the US at a strategic disadvantage? This is the dilemma of our age.”
Biometric data capture is already widely used. From Touch ID on our mobile phones, to Clear at airport security, to Global Entry and Mobile Passport at border control stations, biometric data is regularly used to prove someone is who they say they are. Surveillance cameras on our streets and roadways regularly identify and track us. Whether by fingerprint, iris scan, facial or other markers, each person’s unique identity can be found and validated. And these systems can also be hacked. Some knowledgeable critics of government surveillance and the Deep State remain staunchly opposed. Exiled NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden tweeted in response to WorldCoin, “Don’t use biometrics for anti-fraud. In fact, don’t use biometrics for anything.”
In a world of AI and existing government surveillance programs, a decentralized private sector proof-of-personhood solution seems not only inevitable but necessary. A world without PoP would be either anarchic or authoritarian, as it would be impossible to transact without government imposed centralized identity solutions. Surely a non-governmental PoP solution is desirable to counteract the encroaching power of totalitarian governments. True decentralization is key to achieving that level of privacy and security. Whether WorldCoin will safely provide such a solution is impossible to tell at this stage. In the meantime, it will continue to creep people out.
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