AI pioneer Sam Altman wants to scan your eyeballs

AI pioneer Sam Altman wants to scan your eyeballs

Altman is the most important person in AI, having been the first to spread it to the world. Now he is looking to spread the antidote too. Neat trick.

If we are able to clearly distinguish between machines and humans, and the provenance of their inputs and outputs, then the roll-out of AI in our lives becomes much more governable. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s new crypto Worldcoin will ensure users are human – by scanning their eyeballs.

On 24 July, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI (the developer of ChatGPT), launched something else, far from the world of AI where he currently reigns. It was in the world of crypto and biometrics. Only it turns out not to have been that far away. 

It was the launch of a project called Worldcoin, which has been in beta testing for a few years. Yet another crypto token on a blockchain barely raises an eyebrow these days, unless it is a sceptical one. But when developed and championed by someone as influential as Altman, and aided and abetted by a list of celebrity venture capitalists, there is bound to be a lot more scrutiny. 

Especially since part of the project is to scan your eyeballs (your iris, to be precise) with a shiny spherical device called “the Orb”. Actually, the project’s megamission is to scan the eyeballs of every human on the planet. This is to prove that the scanned person is alive. 

It is called “proof of personhood”. Only then can you activate the Worldcoin app and everything it portends, because currently the Worldcoin app can do little else other than store and send Worldcoins. 

If this seems a little dystopian, it’s probably because that is how most people react when they first hear about it. But there is, as in most things, another narrative battling to be heard. 

Here’s how it works. 

Lots of these Orbs are being distributed to cities around the world and citizens are being invited to step up for an iris scan. The scan is turned into a unique number called a hash. An ID of sorts, but without the necessity to attach it to a named person, it simply certifies that the eyeball in question belongs to the real human seeking to use the Worldcoin app (you can download the app anytime, but it won’t be activated until you are scanned). In return, the good citizen is given a small dusting of cryptocurrency in the form of Worldcoins. It’s a little reward for signing up. 

You may ask, why? Or even WTF?

There are two answers to this. The first is that Sam Altman is a proponent of a universal unhackable ID, which would be ensured by this project if his ambitious goal of seven billion sign-ups was ever achieved. 

This then enables all manner of things to be implemented at a global scale, including a universal basic income (UBI), of which Altman is also a big supporter. The details of how a UBI would work are a little sketchy, but one scenario is that if everyone is given free Worldcoins on sign-up, and the price goes up on the open market, then you can use them to buy stuff. This is, of course, economic thin ice. Other routes to UBI are not really pinned down. 

The second answer is far more interesting. It points directly to the much sought-after intersection of crypto and AI.  

Machine intelligence needs data to survive. It is the raw fuel of the entire AI engine. Ingest the corpus of Wikipedia and Twitter, and hundreds of years of books and TV scripts and poetry and lectures and archival news, and you have a massive meal on which the statistics of machine intelligence can feast. That’s how ChatGPT got so fat. 

But there is a looming problem in this, as evidenced by a slew of lawsuits currently crawling their way through the courts. Impossibly entangled in all the public training data is stuff written by humans who are not too happy for their IP to be used in the training of AIs. 

At least not without permission. Or accreditation. Or payment.  

And there’s the rub. How does anyone (the AI, the developers of the AI, the consumers of the AI) know which content belongs to whom once it has been ingested and smooshed by statistics into a stream of numbers and then morphed into something else? 

They don’t. That’s a big problem. 

So, if we can clearly distinguish between machines and humans and the provenance of their inputs and outputs, then the roll-out of AI in our lives becomes much more governable. Training data for AI can be signed by their human creators, content could be watermarked as authentically created, faking and misinformation could more easily be surveilled and sanctioned. That would go a long way to mitigate the fear and uncertainty currently raging around how we control AI. 

AIs will never be able to pretend to be human until they grow eyeballs. 

Altman made this explicit connection between his crypto project and AI in a recent tweet:

The irony is not lost on me. Altman is the most important person in AI, having been the first to spread it to the world. Now he is looking to spread the antidote too. Neat trick. 

And as for the gut reaction to the 1984-ish prospect of getting your eyeballs scanned? 

Fingerprints, sure. National ID cards, no prob. iPhone Face ID, fine. But I’m not sure I could make the leap to science fiction eyeball-scanning spheres and the somewhat disturbing prospect of a global ID. Probably for all the wrong reasons.  

There are no Orb locations in South Africa. Yet. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is Professor of Practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book It’s Mine: How the Crypto Economy is Redefining Ownership will be published in August 2023.


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