Is it a crypto company? A biometric authentication platform? A “human economic system”? Inside Worldcoin’s struggle to find itself.
By Richard Nieva, Forbes Staff
As“Beverly” stared into the orb, the machine continued to malfunction. The spartan silver sphere, which scans eyeballs for Sam Altman’s cryptocurrency project Worldcoin, had failed to record her iris despite several attempts.
It was August 2021, and Beverly, a top executive at Tools For Humanity, the company behind Worldcoin, had come to Erlangen, Germany, to visit the fledgling startup’s headquarters. Two months earlier, before the project was even announced, news had leaked about Altman’s audacious new venture: an effort to create a “collectively owned global currency that will be distributed fairly to as many people as possible,” a universal basic income on the blockchain. The eyeball scan she was struggling to complete was supposed to authenticate her as a unique individual so that she could only claim her allotment of Worldcoin tokens once.
The startup had sent an army of contractors, orb operators in company parlance, to collect eyeball scans across the globe, from Kenya to Indonesia. The aim was to spread Worldcoin’s gospel of crypto-utopia like missionaries, but in those early days, there was a setback: the orb apparently had particular trouble scanning the eyes of Asian people, according to three people involved with the company.
In Beverly’s case, the machine repeatedly struggled to make the scan, commanding her to “Open your eyes,” in a robotic female voice, two people with knowledge of the incident told Forbes. The prompt elicited laughter from the throng of coworkers gathered. Beverly, who is Asian American, laughed alongside them.
One employee, who heard about the incident afterwards, told Forbes that while it was amusing to some, it “was found very unfunny by those who are Asian.” Beverly didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Forbes is not using her real name to protect her privacy. Other sources were granted anonymity for fear of retaliation.)
Multiple people involved with the company confirmed to Forbes that the orb sometimes had difficulty scanning the eyes of other Asian staffers at the time. But they also noted that the orb was prone to glitches in the early days. One former Worldcoin employee attributed its difficulty in scanning Asian eyes to the lack of diverse training data, noting that the system was trained mostly on the eyes of white and Black people. Tools For Humanity declined to comment specifically on the incident involving the top executive, but communications chief Rebecca Hahn said in a statement that the orb demonstrated “global inclusivity” during field testing, scanning “more than two million people across a diverse population spanning five continents, including Asia.”
The orb has faced other problems. Late last year, Worldcoin discovered an exploit that operators used to fool the device into creating multiple signups for the same person, three people told Forbes. The trick involved waiting until an iris scan was almost complete, and then swapping in a different person to stand in front of the orb as the scan finished. One person told Forbes the practice was frequently used in Kenya for a time. Another claimed a colleague had created around 100 sign-ups for themselves using it.
“Scale it up and see what happens.”
At least three operators in Kenya, who used the trick to boost their signup numbers in an attempt to collect higher payouts, were fired for using the exploit, two people said. The startup released a software update to correct the issue earlier this year. But the exploit was so severe that senior leaders including CEO Alex Blania were alerted, a former Worldcoin employee said. Some inside the startup viewed the situation as an “existential crisis,” that person said, because it potentially nullified the entire point of the company—to prove someone was a unique person. It’s unclear how many fake sign-ups were created using the trick.
Tools For Humanity didn’t answer specific questions about the exploit, but legal chief Thomas Scott said in a statement that the company and the Worldcoin Foundation “conduct investigations into claims regarding potential fraudulent behavior or operations and take corrective action as appropriate.” Those probes can lead to disciplinary actions and “offboarding” operators and their staff, he added.
For a company whose business is identity, Worldcoin has been grappling with an identity problem. The issue has played out literally in technological struggles like the Asian eyes incident, but it has also manifested in a larger conundrum: As the crypto market has crumbled—devastated in part by the disgraced crypto exchange FTX, founded by Sam Bankman Fried, who once invested in Worldcoin—the company has been struggling to define its purpose. Hours of leaked audio from an all-company retreat, a confidential 12-page strategy memo, hundreds of slides from town hall presentations, and interviews with people affiliated with the company provide a detailed look inside the startup as it geared up for its public debut, wrangling everything from missed targets to technical challenges.
The Worldcoin token finally launched in late July, to the relief of early beta testers, especially those in poor countries who had traded their irises for crypto three years earlier and worried they’d never be paid. But the initial rollout has been rocky. The Worldcoin app has suffered from bugs, and some people who had been scanned have not been able to claim their tokens, according to three orb operators and screenshots viewed by Forbes. It’s unclear how widespread the technical issues are, but one operator in Kenya said they had gotten hundreds of complaints. Worldcoin reps hadn’t been responding on customer service channels either, the operator said. Earlier this month, the Kenyan government suspended Worldcoin’s operations in the country over data protection concerns.
“Definitely the new DNA of the company is the whole identity thing. They no longer say they are a crypto company.”
“Strained systems, technologies and intermittent delays were an unfortunate but practical byproduct of this surge in global demand coinciding with the complex transition to production systems,” Blania said in a statement. “The project has taken steps to ensure that the technical challenges experienced at launch have not negatively impacted some of the earliest Worldcoin users. He added that it had extended some deadlines for users to claim their token allotments.
Squarely in the middle of all this is Altman, one of the most powerful figures in technology today because of his other company, OpenAI. But even as OpenAI, which makes the popular artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT, has become Silicon Valley’s highest-flying unicorn, Worldcoin is arguably Altman’s bolder bet, a globe-spanning biometric identity network with its sights set on remaking the world’s financial system. Recently, however, the company has shifted its pitch to users, grounding it in biometric authentication instead of economic equity. “Definitely the new DNA of the company is the whole identity thing,” a former employee said. “They no longer say they are a crypto company.”
Responding to questions about Tools For Humanity and Worldcoin’s shifting purpose, Blania said in a statement that “Worldcoin was founded more than three years ago, with the ambition of creating a new, privacy-preserving identity and financial network owned by everyone.”
But behind closed doors, even Altman has conceded Worldcoin hasn’t been able to explain what it will be in the end. “We don’t seem to have quite nailed that yet. Which is fine—it’s hard and it’s really new,” he said last May at a companywide summit in Cancun, according to audio obtained by Forbes. “Once we’ve internally decided the direction we want to go—and I think there’s still multiple opinions there—once that is said, and if that really resonates with people, then things can really catch fire.” Among the list of possible applications for Worldcoin’s identification system: financial transactions, voting, airdropping crypto, remittances, and website logins, according to one document.
At its core is the orb, and its supposed ability to provide “proof of personhood,” ensuring that you are who you say you are, without relying on old-school forms of identity—like passports. “The idea that Worldcoin can do this without government permission at global scale is really exciting,” Altman said at the summit.
But there are obvious risks as well, perhaps even catastrophic ones. At the company’s retreat, Blania wondered aloud if Worldcoin’s reinvention of the financial system might lead to a situation where “maybe even whole nation-states collapse.”
It’s a troublingly grand hypothetical—particularly for a company moving so quickly. As Altman told employees at the summit, one of his personal operating principles is “scale it up and see what happens,” something he’s found effective with everything from large neural networks to fusion reactors. And the faster the better. Scaling up “earlier than it makes sense to …is super, super valuable,” he told employees.
Worldcoin’s Hahn said the company “is not in a position to comment on misrepresentations or hearsay that may selectively lack appropriate context.” The startup declined to make Blania and Altman available for interviews.
‘Some things went really well. Other things did not’
On July 24, Worldcoin finally launched its cryptocurrency, WLD, more than three years after Altman cofounded the startup. As the company celebrated the rollout, it trumpeted its user numbers: 2.1 million sign-ups and 500,000 monthly active users announced in May. But the figures fell dramatically short of the company’s goals, according to a strategy memo from early last year viewed by Forbes. By the end of 2022, the company expected to have 30 million people onboard and 5 million monthly active users. The launch of the token itself, which is unavailable in the U.S., also missed several targets, including a deadline of August to September 2022, at the time when the strategy document was written.
Worldcoin’s customer acquisition plan has in many ways been a biometric land grab. The company encouraged orb operators to subcontract their eyeball scanning efforts, capturing more irises and earning more orbs for hitting weekly quotas. But some in its corps of orb operators were arrested, exploited, and harassed by both local law enforcement and community members, who felt cheated after waiting so long to receive their allotment of digital cash, as I reported last year for BuzzFeed News. Some critics likened the operation to a Silicon Valley brand of colonialism.
The company has endlessly recalibrated its outreach strategy to maximize signups. When it found that people were less interested in orbs sitting idly on a table, it told operators to hold them in their hands. In Norway, where operators were focusing on a 16- to 25-year-old demographic, it told them to target groups of friends. “Peer pressure is a real thing,” a presentation at the time exclaimed. To motivate employees, the company showed them a slide with a photo of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, accompanied by the slogan “Wir schaffen das,” roughly translated to “We can do this,” a phrase she often repeated during the European migrant crisis.
When you task people with selling their neighbors on the promise of something as otherworldly as a crypto token biometrically secured to their personhood, there will inevitably be deviations from plan. “Some things went really well. Other things did not,” Blania told employees at the offsite. “We had incredible feedback in many places. And in other places, operators started doing very, very stupid things.” He added, “But it was expected. So, whatever.”
“I think with random bad ‘this startup wants your eyeballs’ headlines, people are just like, ‘Alright, the media fucking sucks at this point.’”
It’s not clear what Blania meant by “stupid things.” But in some cases, according to sources, “stupid things” may have meant scanning underage users. In others it might have meant operators giving kickbacks to local leaders at signup events. Or, in the case of Zimbabwe, it may have meant the company deploying orb operators in a country where crypto transactions were illegal. The company declined to elaborate on what Blania meant, but said it complies with local laws and regulations.
Yet, Worldcoin cultivated an aggressive ethos in employees, according to a strategy memo. When hiring team members, the company emphasized recruiting people that were “more pirate than navy.” “This is not true for every role, but wherever we can, we look for people that have the intelligence, drive, and character to excel in society but oftentimes along the way decide to break the rules for all the right reasons,” the document says. “We look for Founders and Hackers.”
Worldcoin took some flak for its field tests in the media. But at the summit, Altman largely dismissed it. “I think with random bad ‘this startup wants your eyeballs’ headlines, people are just like, ‘Alright, the media fucking sucks at this point.’ It’s fine,” he said.
But even Worldcoin employees have noted the not-exactly-ideal optics of a well-funded tech startup, which has raised more than $500 million from high-powered backers including Andreesen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures, hiring locals in low-income nations to scan people’s irises with the promise of free money. During a Q&A at the retreat, an employee remarked on the location—the 5 star Grand Velas Riviera Maya where rooms run upwards of $1,000 per night—and the disparity between it and the company’s stated mission. “As we sit in this luxury resort in Cancun, why should anyone believe that we’re serious about helping promote financial inclusion in poor countries?” they asked. Blania punted. The company had chosen Mexico because the retreat was originally supposed to occur during a period of tighter Covid restrictions, he explained before quickly moving on. “Anyways, here we are, and enjoy the time.” And they did; pictures from a corporate photography website show Worldcoin employees frolicking on the beach with the orb, striking yoga and basketball poses.
“As we sit in this luxury resort in Cancun, why should anyone believe that we’re serious about helping promote financial inclusion in poor countries?”
Other questions troubling Worldcoin aren’t so easily dismissed. In March, hackers reportedly stole the security credentials of a handful of orb operators and gained full access to the Worldcoin orb operator dashboard, which wasn’t protected by two-factor authentication. Two months later, leaked hashes from iris scans began appearing on the black market in China, reportedly costing as little as $20. And though it maintains its identity system is “completely private” and “designed to enable anonymous actions,” Worldcoin is facing privacy probes in a handful of countries, including Germany, where the company is headquartered, the U.K., France and Kenya.
Scott, chief legal officer at Tools for Humanity, said in a statement that the company and the Worldcoin project “never have and never will sell user personal data. We comply with laws and regulations governing the processing of personal data in the markets where Worldcoin is available.”
‘Maybe even whole nation-states collapse’
While much has been made about Worldcoin’s effort to scan eyeballs around the globe, less is known about the project’s origins. At the retreat, Altman spoke about his motivations for starting the company. In leaked audio recordings obtained by Forbes, he said it arose from his “belief” that “our central institutions, most powerful governments, were either going to continue to get less powerful or continue to get worse,” he told employees. “I thought that it would be interesting to see what [it would look like to] run an experiment of just how far a technology could accomplish some of the goals that used to be done by nation states,” like ending poverty.
As with OpenAI, Altman seems willing to open Pandora’s box, without fully knowing what to expect or what to do if things get out of hand. “Emergent phenomena are difficult to predict,” he said. “And I don’t know what those will be for Worldcoin. I don’t think any of us do. But if there is a single global platform infrastructure—whatever this turns out to be—that has like half the world using it, and agreement [that] this is a store of value, I’m very confident that the creativity of the world, if we can build that platform layer, will surprise us on the upside in terms of what people do about it.”
The shifting direction of the company has frustrated some Worldcoin staffers, who think the burden trickles down to the users in low-income countries that don’t know exactly what they’re signing up for. “It’s impossible to actually inform these people of what you’re doing when you don’t even know what you’re doing,” a former employee told Forbes.
At the retreat, an employee asked Altman and Blania what would have to happen for the company to voluntarily shut Worldcoin down. A geopolitical catastrophe, Blania said. “If this really works, and it scales dramatically, it has very, very weird economical effects we just can’t predict right now,” he said. “Like maybe even whole nation states collapse or something like this, and we really have to change the whole economics of the system to not do this.”
Blania said the company had no policies in place to address such calamities. “We don’t have that yet written down somewhere,” he remarked. “But maybe we should.” Worldcoin did not respond to a question about if such policies were subsequently drafted.
DNA ‘doesn’t scale’
As the company has shifted its focus more toward identity verification, its success is wrapped up in one thing: the orb. The device was designed by Jony Ive protege Thomas Meyerhoffer, who claimed at the company summit that it is “way more advanced than many of the computers Apple did.” A chrome sphere with an onboard eyeball scanner, it looks like something you’d find either on the deck of a spaceship or at a Spencer’s Gifts.
The orb scans an iris in a few seconds, creating a biometric image, then converts that image into a string of numbers associated with the user; the iris image is then deleted (unless the user opts in to storing it with Worldcoin). It’s an impressive piece of tech, though according to Blania it wasn’t always the company’s first choice for verifying personhood. Before the startup settled on the spherical scanner, it considered palm readers and facial recognition. It even briefly mulled DNA sequencing before abandoning the idea. “First of all it’s scary,” Blania said at the company retreat. “Second of all, it doesn’t scale.”
Altman is using his recent OpenAI renown to tout Worldcoin and the orb publicly. In May, he posted a picture of himself getting his eyes scanned in Europe. A few days after the token launch, he tweeted a video of a signup event where a line of hundreds snaked around the block, with Altman claiming the company was verifying new users at a clip of one person every eighteight seconds.
“It’s impossible to actually inform these people of what you’re doing when you don’t even know what you’re doing.”
In San Francisco last month, the scene was much more subdued—unsurprising since the token isn’t available in the U.S. At Shack15, a glitzy coworking space in the city’s historic Ferry Building that’s popular with startups, signups were held by appointment in a private office. A man in a tie-dye sweatshirt sat behind a desk with two orbs on it, a bottle of contact lens solution nearby (contacts might interfere with “seamless” scanning, an email to users warned).
James Chen, a 42-year-old in town from Beijing to visit friends, arrived for his appointment with his wife and young daughter. The couple each got their eyes scanned, but not their child because she’s under 18, the minimum age allowed by the company in the U.S. Chen said he wanted to join Worldcoin because he believes in its mission statement of universal basic income and wanted to get in early after he “missed the Bitcoin opportunity.”
He said he’s not worried about the privacy implications of handing his iris data over to a startup, but joked, “In the future, maybe the AI, the bots, can use this system to recognize ‘Are you human?’ and destroy us. That’s possible,” he said, laughing. “So my daughter has not signed up. Maybe we’ll see what happens.”
A few minutes later, Chen sat at a table in the coworking space’s cafe, eating lunch with his family. As the parents talked, their daughter sat quietly playing with some free Worldcoin merch given to users after the iris scan — a roll of stickers with the words “unique human” on them.