Altman’s Worldcoin idea is out to reinvent the Aadhaar wheel

Sam Altman has a visionary view of how humans could be paid  a universal basic income in  an AI-driven economy but the retina-scan mechanism for  that already exists in India.  (REUTERS)
Sam Altman has a visionary view of how humans could be paid a universal basic income in an AI-driven economy but the retina-scan mechanism for that already exists in India. (REUTERS)


His ‘vision’ has appeal but biometric identification of genuine humans for cash transfers isn’t new

After creating a chatbot that has blurred the difference between a human and a machine, Sam Altman seems keen to create a new Turing Test to differentiate between the two. Launched on 24 July, Worldcoin is a “new identity and financial network owned by everyone". It consists of a digital identity called World ID and a digital cryptocurrency, WLD, and you can get this “simply for being human." This new Turing Test, however, is not as simple as putting a machine in one room and a human in the other asking questions of it. ChatGPT and its ilk have made that test redundant—it is quite easy for a machine to convince you that it is human by giving very human sounding answers. This new test treads into biology: To certify that you are a genuine human being, you need to go to an Orb, which is a biometric verification device, and get your iris scanned. Currently, Orbs in 25 cities across 20 countries are scanning human eyes and giving them Worldcoin for their trouble. Reportedly, more than 2 million authentic human beings are now official citizens of World ID.

The purpose is noble, and ostensibly visionary. Altman has looked beyond the Silicon Valley bubble and foreseen a world which is overrun by human-like AI and robots, many of them doing most of the work that humans do today. With biometric identification, the value produced by this work can be distributed among human beings as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To make that happen, we need to know who the real humans are, and for that, we need an inviolable identity—that’s where World ID comes in. The UBI envisioned will presumably be distributed as Worldcoin. Not everyone thinks that this “decentralised, privacy-preserving solution" to the world’s AI problem is a crazy idea. Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures, Reid Hoffman and others have pitched in $115 million at a $3 billion valuation to make it happen. So has FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, but for some reason, he gets no front-and- centre mention in press releases. Details of this project remain quite unclear, and crypto oriented investments are not a hot venture capital favourite right now, but Worldcoin seems to have bucked the trend. Admittedly, a large part of the excitement has to do with the inarguable genius and success of Altman himself. With distinctly Muskian overtones, Altman is building and investing in firms that could reshape societies and the planet. The third leg of this effort is Oklo, a nuclear fission startup chaired by Altman that is set to go public at a valuation of $850 million. In an interview with Financial Times, he was brimming with optimism: “These are independent parts of a specific vision of the future. But they’re all doing their own things and they all work independently."

At least two of his three initiatives put him on a collision course with governments worldwide. OpenAI’s GPT series, while drumming up great excitement, has also raised the hackles of regulators in many countries. Allegations of plagiarism, bias and environmental degradation are being hurled at it, even while there is a fear of a looming super-intelligence. Worldcoin stumbled on its launch day itself, with the US clampdown on all things crypto preventing a US launch. “We didn’t think it would end up as ‘world minus the US coin’," Altman confessed to FT. He, however, has a different take on this. He believes that governments have lost the ability to do big, life-changing projects. Today’s governments cannot do another Manhattan Project or take the challenge of putting humans on other planets, or even build a new supersonic passenger plane again (to emphasise this, he keeps a part of the Concorde in his office). “In a well functioning society, governments would be doing the AGI project and [nuclear] fusion and a whole bunch of things—and yet they’re not. “So we either sit around and watch the gradual decline of state capacity and say ‘that’s a bummer’ and ‘we’re just not going to have any more technical progress…’ or you do the next best thing and just build great companies." (

I do agree with this sentiment on the nuclear fusion or generative AI part, but to create a digital identity at ‘population scale,’ perhaps he needs to visit India again. Its Digital Public Infrastructure has already done what World ID wants to do, with almost 1.4 billion people identified biometrically by Aadhaar. This system has also enabled UBI-like cash transfers directly into the bank accounts of genuine human beings, and it has largely been built by the government. Perhaps Altman could look at taking Aadhaar global rather than re- invent the wheel—or the Orb.

Jaspreet Bindra is a technology expert, author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and is currently pursuing his Masters in AI and Ethics from Cambridge University

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App