by Owen Fernau
As Altman-backed OpenAI progresses, so does the tech titan’s identity venture.
This week Sam Altman’s OpenAI released a new iteration of its viral product which replaces human functions with robots, while Worldcoin, another venture co-founded by Altman, launched a project that aims to make sure robots can’t impersonate humans.
Worldcoin, a project which aims to build digital identity via biometrics stored on-chain, on Tuesday launched World ID, a protocol that aims to provide tools for developers to prove that there is a real person behind a digital action. OpenAI, which developed the AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT, released a major upgrade, GPT-4, on the same day.
World ID runs on Ethereum and stands to potentially give developers working in crypto a new way to establish whether there is a real person behind a transaction. The absence of an established identity has held back many aspects of crypto like voting on a per person basis, establishing credit scores, and preventing gaming of reward schemes like airdrops.
A private alpha version of World ID ran on the Polygon blockchain, but the new iteration can be bridged to networks beyond Ethereum like Optimism, and Arbitrum, as well as Polygon.
AI’s rapid development is likely to highlight digital identity’s importance even further as the technology stands to make it easy to automate and replicate digital actions, previously only triggered by humans. These include blockchain-based transactions, where burgeoning spaces like social networks, credit protocols, and compliance, could be destablized were an AI to be able to easily impersonate human-like behavior.
As part of the launch of World ID, Worldcoin is producing a Software Development Kid (SDK), which will allow developers working both in and outside of crypto to build applications using the protocol.
The Worldcoin project as a whole can be thought of in three parts, the World ID protocol, which went live in beta on Mar. 1, an unreleased Worldcoin token, which is rumored to be part of a basic income program, and an app, which can be used to buy, sell and send crypto, the worldcoin token, and conventional dollars.
Worldcoin’s most controversial aspect stems from the system’s flagship way of establshing personhood — by allowing a battery-powered piece of hardware called the “Orb,” to scan your iris.
Users can also verify their identity with a phone number, but this may not make them eligible for the same functionality as using an Orb. Whether an app uses iris scans or phone numbers This depends on the degree of importance a developer’s app puts on having personhood established with an Orb.
The most straightforward use of a World ID is to sign into applications — as part of the launch Worldcoin enabled a functionality on its Discord channel which allowed people to sign in with their World ID.
“World ID is by far the most unique piece about Worldcoin,” Tiago Sada, head of product, engineering and design at Tools For Humanity, a company building products for the Worldcoin ecosystem, told The Defiant in a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco.
Sada highlighted that it’s hard to establish whether there’s a unique human behind an internet action. “50% of the population does not have an ID you can verify online,” he said. “And with everything really cool that’s happening in AI, this just becomes an even bigger problem.”
Indeed, AI may be able to perform human-like interactions on the web in the near future — Alex Blania, Worldcoin’s CEO and co-founder, told The Defiant last month that within the year AI systems will be able to automatically create accounts on social media and begin posting content from them. OpenAI’s release of GPT-4 seems in line with that prediction — the new model is able to reason about and process images, not just text like ChatGPT.
Worldcoin may prove to be a way to counteract some of the issues which may soon arise from AI-created content and social media accounts. Misinformation has already become a contentious issue after the United States’ 2016 presidential election — if AI can soon be programmed to spin up social media accounts and post false content, the technology stands to ratchet the problem up more than a few notches.
Crypto too, is home to a host of problems surrounding identity. DAO voting currently centers around how many tokens a given user has, which brings up the issue of wealthy people being able to essentially buy out a project’s governance. Airdrops are often gamed. And decentralized credit scores are still elusive.
Still, the jury is out about whether Worldcoin’s approach is the right one — the partially open-sourced Orb has drawn significant criticism from people like Santiago Siri, who founded Democracy.Earth, a project which housed another identity system called Proof of Humanity.
“Human rights on cyberspace is a delicate subject,” he posted on Twitter when news of Worldcoin first came out. “Any system relying on objective biometrics can easily generate fake fingerprints without anyone knowing it… thus hijacking elections or stealing income.”
Proof of Humanity aims to establish identity without scanning people’s irises. Instead, its design establishes personhood through a combination of individual video submissions and also by relying on a “web of trust,” other already verified people to vouch for a person’s individuality.
Sada disagrees, saying it’s hard to get past the bootstrapping phrase with a system that’s based on a trusted network.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if after one billion people that have the biometric verification, then you can build a web of trust on top of that,” he said. “And maybe the protocol will migrate to that as a flagship signal at some point.”
It’s not only Worldcoin and Proof-of-Humanity working in the digital identity space — the team behind the Polygon blockchain launched an identity service two weeks ago and projects like Unstoppable Domains, Disco, Ethereum Name Service (ENS) are also working in the space.
For now, Sada argues biometrics are the best approach to establish personhood.
Worldcoin’s documentation says that it uses zero-knowledge proofs, an application of cryptography which allows people to prove something is true without revealing what that thing is, to establish personhood. According to the documentation, using World ID does not mean allowing anyone, including developers and the Worldcoin team, to link a user with a specific person.
However, a string of numbers which corresponds to a person’s iris, known as a hash, does leave the Orb when people use it. This hash needs to be compared against other hashes to establish uniqueness.
“A bunch of people are working on making sure that that comparison can actually just happen openly on-chain,” said Sada, adding that he didn’t think iris hashes need to be confidential information. As it stands, in World ID’s beta iteration, that comparison does happen on proprietary servers, he said.
And while Worldcoin’s use of biometrics remains controversial, Sada thinks the need to establish identity on a digital and global scale is becoming more and more evident with the rise of AI.
“It’s very exciting to see people start to understand why global proof-of-personhood is needed, and will exist” he said. “Now the question is, how will that look.” Sada said that the teams behind Worldcoin think their solution’s relative openness is desirable relative to a centralized system which may emerge as competition.
“I can guarantee you that there will be a global proof of personhood system,” he said.
Whether that system is Worldcoin, one developed by a government or another crypto company, or doesn’t emerge at all, is an open question.