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07/08/2023 03:28 PM 234

Iris Scans for Digital Identity

A new startup called Worldcoin is making waves by using futuristic silver orbs to scan people's irises in over 100 locations worldwide. The goal is to create a new form of digital identification and proof of personhood based on unique biometric data. While this may sound like science fiction, thousands are already voluntarily having their irises scanned every day. 

Worldcoin was co-founded in 2019 by Sam Altman, CEO of AI research company OpenAI, along with Alex Blania and Max Novendstern. The impetus was to solve the problem of proving you are a real human online, which is becoming increasingly difficult with advancements in AI-generated content. An iris scan providesproof of personhood that can't be easily forged.

The process works by having independent contractors called "operators" use handheld spheres called orbs to take photos of both irises. The images themselves aren't stored, just a unique digital signature or "hash." This verifies the person is human based on prior scans, and hasn't been scanned before.

While biometric identification isn't new, the global scale and crypto incentives of Worldcoin make it unprecedented. People scanned get free tokens of a new digital currency called WLD, worth around $60 currently. This spurred huge interest internationally, with massive crowds forming to register in some countries. However, regulatory issues prevent WLD distribution in the US for now.

Worldcoin has sparked polarized reactions. Critics see it as a dystopian surveillance system, building an "eyeball catalog" as Edward Snowden tweeted. But others are intrigued by the futuristic appeal and potential benefits of a permanent identity solution. Over 2 million have already signed up globally.

Edward Snowden tweet

Edward Snowden tweet

Trying Out the Orb Registration Process by NBC news author

In the news article, the author was curious about the Worldcoin sign-up process, so he visited a Worldcoin verification site in San Francisco. It was a rented office in a tech hub filled with startups. The author's "operator" was a contract worker hired to scan people's irises and guide them through the process. 

The orb itself was a surprisingly hefty silver sphere, around 8 inches across, that runs on a removable battery. It has a camera inside and resembles a large magic 8 ball. After agreeing to Worldcoin's terms on a smartphone app, the author held the orb about a foot from his face while it flashed lights and beeped, taking iris scans.

The whole process took only about a minute, after which the author received a digital proof of personhood badge on the app. This process went smoothly for the author, although there have been reports of some operators using questionable practices during trials. But overall, it was quick, simple and painless for the author to have his irises registered.

To register in Worldcoin’s ecosystem, you need to scan your iris with an “orb”

To register in Worldcoin’s ecosystem, you need to scan your iris with an “orb”

Potential Benefits and Risks of Biometric ID

Worldcoin envisions many potential benefits if its biometric ID system gains wide adoption. It could enable smoother identity verification for banking, social platforms, travel, voting, and more. Supporters see it as a secure solution to identity theft and fake accounts. It may even enable novel applications like personalized services that recognize you instantly.

However, there are also privacy and ethical risks to consider. A centralized database of iris scans could be vulnerable to hacking. There are concerns about how biometric data will be stored and shared. Making enrollment voluntary is important, as involuntary collection raises human rights issues. Still, convenience and crypto incentives may pressure people to comply.

There are also questions around informed consent. Do people fully grasp what they're signing up for by providing sensitive biometric data? The permanence of biometric ID also sparks debate, as you can't change your iris like you can a password. Overall, people have very different comfort levels around biometrics.

The Future of Digital Identity

Worldcoin represents a significant real-world step toward making biometric digital identity a reality. Whether it succeeds long term is uncertain, but it's clear there is surging interest in solving digital identity. 

As AI progresses, verifying real humans online will only grow more challenging. Biometric authentication like iris scans may provide part of the solution. But there are also emerging cryptography-based approaches focused on self-sovereign identity owned and controlled by individuals.

How we balance privacy, security, access, and innovation around digital identity will impact society and the economy. But living in an increasingly digital world will likely require some form of unique digital ID. Experiments like Worldcoin show this future is arriving faster than many expected.

People queuing in Kenya for iris scan

People queuing in Kenya for iris scan

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