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Silicon Valley's new product: Eyeball-scanning silver orbs to confirm you're human

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The latest craze in Silicon Valley? Silver orbs that scan your eyeballs. The company behind it says its goal is to distinguish humans from bots in the age of AI. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn paid a visit to one of the orbs to try it out.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: I'm here in Santa Monica at a Worldcoin pop-up, and I'm looking at a silver orb. And apparently, it's going to verify my identity by scanning my irises. Kind of freaky, but I decided to do it. So let's go.

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ALLYN: Fifteen seconds later, the orb is taking a scan of my eyes. I verify that I'm at least 18 years old and willing to have my biometric data collected, and now my Worldcoin account is authenticated. I join the likes of more than 2 million people around the world who have sat in front of Worldcoin orbs to have their irises scanned, from Chile to Indonesia to Kenya.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Worldcoin has been registering thousands of Kenyans by having an individual scan their iris and in exchange for 25 free Worldcoin tokens valued at approximately 8,000 shillings.

ALLYN: The Kenyans who are having their eyes scanned were lining up in exchange for a cryptocurrency that could be converted into the equivalent of about 50 American dollars. Molly White is a researcher at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab who has examined Worldcoin. She said many who had their eyes scanned were motivated by the money and didn't exactly know what they were giving in return.

MOLLY WHITE: In many cases, the people who were having their biometric data collected were not aware of what was being collected or how it was being stored or for how long.

ALLYN: Footage of thousands of people lining up in Africa and Southeast Asia enticed by a Silicon Valley money giveaway got the attention of regulators. Authorities in Kenya raided Worldcoin's headquarters in Nairobi, and government officials in the EU and the U.K. have launched investigations. But it hasn't slowed the excitement for the project among tech boosters. Co-founded by ChatGPT CEO Sam Altman, Worldcoin says it's trying to solve a big problem in the crypto world - being able to tell the difference between bots and humans in a future where AI is everywhere. To do this, the company has developed silver orbs that turn an eyeball scan into what's known as a hash - a string of letters and numbers uniquely tied to each person who sits for a scan. Here's Harvard researcher White.

WHITE: Sounds like something from the pages of a half-baked sci-fi novel. It also sounds like the kind of operation that venture capitalists would value at over $1 billion.

ALLYN: Actually, 3 billion. White says the dystopian vibes around Worldcoin are helping it get attention, and the whole silver orb thing? She says it's all optics.

WHITE: The orb is a bit of a gimmick. You know, there's really no reason that the iris scanner and the associated hardware needs to be the shiny, chrome orb.

ALLYN: Tiago Sada, who is with the company that developed Worldcoin, told me from Berlin that he welcomes the scrutiny of the iris-scanning orbs. He says iris scans are already common at airports and used to log into virtual reality headsets. So despite the skepticism, he says there is growing acceptance.

TIAGO SADA: I remember when Face ID, for example, first became available on the iPhones, a lot of my friends were like, I'm never going to get an iPhone again.

ALLYN: The actual objective of the company has bounced around a bit. When it first emerged at the height of crypto mania, it said it wanted to help redistribute crypto's riches to the masses. Now, with AI being all the craze, it says it wants to do something else - authenticate every person in the world. Worldcoin envisions a future where people use iris scans to log into email, to verify financial transactions, to confirm your identity with government. As Sada put it to me...

SADA: More than half of the adult population of the world doesn't have an ID that you can digitally verify.

ALLYN: While that might be true, some critics of Worldcoin say its real aim is to inflate the value of the cryptocurrency the company is also pushing. The company behind the orbs, Tools For Humanity, has said that a quarter of the digital coins it's distributing have already been set aside for the venture capitalists and other insiders who are backing the company. Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.