The UK data watchdog is looking into a cryptocurrency scheme launched by OpenAI boss Sam Altman that offers digital coins in exchange for eyeball scans.
The project gives people the chance to stare into a silver orb – which takes an iris scan – to receive free tokens.
Mr Altman described it as a “global financial and identity network based on proof of personhood”, which he said is “especially important in the AI era”.
But it has been criticised as dystopian, as well as posing potential security risks.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, which upholds UK data privacy rights, said it would examine the business.
“We note the launch of Worldcoin in the UK and will be making further enquiries,” a spokesperson added.
What is Worldcoin, and how does it work?
The project is pitched as a method of digital identification that can help distinguish humans from AI online.
It’s the work of a company called Tools For Humanity, which was co-founded by Mr Altman and Alex Blania.
Ahead of its launch, it attracted two million sign-ups.
London was among the cities to host an eye-scanning site on Monday, with people queuing up to look into an orb.
Once a person’s iris is verified as human and not yet signed up, they are assigned a “World ID” on Worldcoin’s smartphone app and given a small amount of cryptocurrency called WLD.
This so-called “orbing” process is being deployed to 35 cities across 20 countries – but nowhere in the US, where regulatory concerns are holding up the currency’s rollout.
People can find a pop-up site close to them on the Worldcoin website, with all three UK locations in London.
Why would anyone want this?
Mr Altman has said the project will help humans keep up in an economy set to be reshaped by AI.
Not only will it help tell people and machines apart, he believes it could aid their finances in the real world as technology takes “more and more of the work”.
Speaking to Reuters, he suggested it could be used to verify people eligible for benefits and reduce fraud.
“We need to start experimenting with things so we can figure out what to do,” he added.
The Worldcoin website says it could also be used as voter ID in elections.
Who is AI power player Sam Altman?
How safe is it?
Privacy and security are two of the main concerns surrounding Worldcoin.
Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of crypto platform Ethereum, has said iris scans may reveal personal information such as medical conditions and that the orbs themselves may not be secure.
Anyone can apply to be an “orb operator” on the Worldcoin website.
Those who are approved are then given basic training and sent an orb.
“We have no way to verify that it was constructed correctly and does not have backdoors,” Mr Buterin said.
He added that users’ phones could also be hacked, putting their World ID at risk, and said – with just 1,500 orbs in circulation and many people in less developed countries not having a smartphone – billions will be cut off.
Mr Blania, WorldCoin’s chief executive, has said blockchains – the online databases that record cryptocurrency transactions – can store them securely and ensure no single entity can shut them down.
Will it catch on?
The concept seems unlikely to appeal to anyone already sceptical of crypto, which faces tougher regulation in the UK following the collapse of major platform FTX last year.
A crackdown on firms marketing crypto assets has since been launched by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Grzegorz Drozdz, analyst at investment firm Conotoxia, said Worldcoin may also struggle to win over true believers.
He said giving WLD tokens away to anyone who signs up, which the company hopes will help drive take-up, will devalue the currency in the long term.
“The price of cryptocurrency always depends on supply and demand,” he said, adding WLD is unlikely to rival established tokens like Bitcoin or Ethereum.
WLD peaked at $3.30 (£2.57) in early trading on Monday, according to market tracker CoinGecko.
It stood at $2.01 (£1.57) on Tuesday morning.
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