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. (Excerpt from 'Silicon Valley's latest hype: Eyeball-scanning silver orbs to confirm you're human’, npr.org, 2023)
The main purpose of the iris-scanning orbs is to: