Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley are working on a wildly ambitious project aimed at distributing cryptocurrency as a form of global basic income, and biometric technology is poised to play a key role.
The effort was unveiled in a scoop by Bloomberg that has effectively become a kind of soft launch, with the project’s principals and backers not yet ready for a formal announcement. Two of those principals, however – Sam Altman and Alexander Blania – were willing to share some details with the publication’s Gillian Tan and Ellen Huet.
Altman is best known as the former president of Y Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley incubator program that helped to spur the growth of big names like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe under his stewardship. Today, he is the head of an AI research company called OpenAI, which was founded in partnership with Tesla CEO Elon Musk (though Musk has since departed from the firm).
As Altman tells it, he started thinking about the idea of using cryptocurrency as a tool for the distribution of wealth in 2019, and subsequently co-founded Worldcoin, a startup meant to put that idea into practice, with Alexander Blania and Max Novendstern.
Coins for the World
The cryptocurrency to be used has not yet been named, and is currently under development. Worldcoin’s plan, according to a job listing found online, is to distribute some of this cryptocurrency “to every single person on earth”. Crucially, accounts will be linked to crypto holders’ iris biometrics, which will be scanned using special devices that are also being developed by Worldcoin.
If the concept of basic crypto income isn’t interesting enough, the device that will facilitate end user authentication is likely to raise some eyebrows. According to Bloomberg’s report, it’s a silver-colored, spherical orb that is about the size of a basketball, and the current prototype costs about $5,000 to manufacture per unit. Worldcoin is currently engaged in real-world trials of the orb in which end users are being asked to enroll their biometrics, with compensation offered in the form of Bitcoin and other currently available cryptocurrencies.
The use of biometrics is fairly common in the cryptocurrency space, perhaps because the latter is driven even more by early adopters than the general financial services sector, where biometric technology has also been markedly embraced. Most often, biometrics are used to secure access to crypto wallets and exchanges, as well as for onboarding.
In the aforementioned job posting, Worldcoin indicated that its plan is to use biometric technology for the latter purpose, explaining that its solution will use “a dedicated hardware device ensuring both humanness and uniqueness of everybody signing up”. But it isn’t yet clear that Worldcoin has plans for a wallet of its own, whether in the form of a mobile app or even a physical hardware wallet like those being used in China’s digital currency trials.
It’s also possible that Worldcoin’s use of biometrics will enable naked payments in which an end users’ biometrics are directly tied to an account and can therefore be used to authorize purchases without the need for a wallet, mobile device, or any other kind of hardware.
Clearly, it’s an ambitious project, but the cost and rather large form factor of Worldcoin’s mysterious biometric orb may raise some skepticism among those in the biometrics industry, which has seen costs and hardware footprints shrink significantly over the last several years.
That having been said, the Worldcoin project demands to be taken seriously, if only thanks to the strength of its backers and ties to the elites of Silicon Valley. In addition to Altman, the startup counts among its investors Andreessen Horowitz, Day One Ventures, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman; and co-founder Max Novendstern previously worked at Bridgewater Associates, the investment firm of Bitcoin convert Ray Dalio. The company recently brought in $25 million in a funding round, according to Bloomberg’s report.
June 29, 2021 – by Alex Perala