Tech is trending towards dystopia

Over the past year, since the public release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, people have been making peace with the idea that omnipotent AI could be on the horizon. Company CEO Sam Altman said, “People need time to think about the idea that we may soon give Earth a powerful new intelligence before people believe it will reshape everything from work to human relationships,” my colleague Ross Anderson reported after the two reported. Many conversations. “ChatGPT was a way to give notice.”

But OpenAI isn’t Altman’s only project, and it’s not the only one with world-changing ambitions. He is also the co-founder of a company called Tools for Humanity, which aims to save people from the economic devastation that could result from AI taking over human jobs. The company’s first major project is WorldCoin, which uses an ominous-looking metallic orb—called an orb—to take eyeball scans from people around the world.

Those scans are converted into unique codes that confirm you’re a real, individual human, not a bot. In the future, this will theoretically give you access to a universal basic income parceled out by WorldCoin’s cryptocurrency, WLD. (You’ll want this because you won’t find work.) According to Tools for Humanity’s World ID app, more than 2 million people in 35 countries have already been scanned. Although it is not yet available in the United States, the WLD token has been distributed elsewhere, and the company has recruited users through cash incentives in countries such as Indonesia and Kenya.

In Orb’s coverage, The New York Times Refers to the 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise must replace his eyeballs to help create a techno-police state. People on social media called the concept “scary,” “Nightmare Fuel,” and “Black mirror asf“(asf meaning “as intercourse”). Vitalik Buterin, co-creator of the Ethereum cryptocurrency and backer of the project, also acknowledged the “dystopian vibes” in a blog post. These reactions don’t include the concept of UBI provided by cryptocurrencies, or the idea that iris verification might one day be required to separate bots from people (although both have received plenty of legitimate criticism). No: There is because It’s an orb and it’s scanning your eyes, specifically to prepare you for a future that many people are justifiably terrified of.

Generally, a solid idea for marketing something new is to position it as the opposite of dystopian. That’s what Apple did in the 1984 Super Bowl commercial, which was 1984-themed and directed by Ridley Scott. It portrayed IBM as Big Brother, a vaguely fascist force of conformity and terror. Meanwhile, Mackintosh was a symbol of vital energy and independence. That ad is famous at least in part because it’s so disgusting: it’s really dangerous to show lockstep-marching skinheads in a commercial, even if you’re ultimately saying that your product can be expressed as their opposite (a female model in running athletic shorts).

But lately, even Apple has acknowledged dark times ahead—“I’m sure Apple knows we’re all going to die soon,” reporter Katie Notopoulos summed up last year, after the company unveiled its new satellite-emergency-calling feature and a An Apple Watch that can withstand extreme weather conditions. And often, tech companies lean in—they say, We are a dystopia. No one forced Tools for Humanity to go with the Orb. No one ever sees tech companies glossing over their products and their marketing with science-fiction or fantasy references, but they do it all the time. They play with us.

Peter Thiel’s top-secret data-analytics company, Palantir, was named after the all-seeing eye-like stones used primarily by evil characters. Lord of the Rings Series Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company Meta and became omnipresent on the Metaverse, borrowing the term from a 1992 Neal Stephenson novel. Snow Crash, apparently unaware that this book isn’t exactly pro-virtual reality. (It’s more about how terrible it is to live in an increasingly class-segregated society, made possible by technology that sounds inherently egalitarian.) Even Google’s one-time motto of “don’t be evil” was a bit tongue-in-cheek, maybe . This suggests that the company has the potential to do a lot worse if it wants to.

Perhaps the most famous example of the dystopia-taunting phenomenon is the meal-replacement drink Soylent, which debuted in 2013 and is named after the product from the 1966 science-fiction novel. Make room! Make room! The 1973 film adaptation of the book, Solent Green, is better known. Soylent in the book means soy and lentils; In the movie, Soylent is a smushed-up people. The company apparently turns a blind eye to the bleak meaning of knocking back a joyless mix of nutrients to stay alive while skipping the time-consuming process of choosing and eating foods one can actually enjoy. To announce the new mint-chocolate flavor, Soylent created ads promoting the #plantsnotpeople hashtag. “If I call it Solent I want someone to investigate it a little deeper,” said co-founder, Rob Rinehart. Ars Technica.

Buying a bottle of Soylent is a consumer preference. But for tech companies, inevitability is the issue. They shape the world we live in, whether we want it to or not. The basic premise of WorldCoin is that everyone needs to be scanned. Not everyone wants to be and prefers to be. The Orb is not a playful nutrient slurry; That’s not to blink.

I asked Tiago Sada, head of product at Tools for Humanity, about the nature of the device. He told me it was to feel “friendly” and “familiar”. When you set it down, it looks up at 23.5 degrees, the same angle as the tilt of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Other iris scanners are “super creepy,” Sada said. “Sounds like you’re going to the doctor.” I asked him: Say you had not created the orb and were seeing it for the first time; How does that look to you? Christmas decorations, he decided. To other people, it looks like a disco ball, he said. They love it. When John Patrolis, chief marketing officer of Tools for Humanity, brought in a dormant Orb Atlantic’s office so I could hold it, I asked him if he thought there was anything scary about the appearance of the orb. No. “I think it looks great,” he said.

In fairness, the company’s designers are in a tight spot: what should An object that looks like it’s scanning your eyes to predict a future in which people lose their jobs to artificial intelligence and are given a universal basic income as a result? I don’t want it cute. I don’t want to scare them. Maybe I don’t want it. But now that it’s here, I’m fascinated by the orb. So I downloaded an app and made an appointment to get scanned.

On Friday morning, I drove to the Meatpacking District and walked into a co-working space run by a venture-capital fund. Orb was sitting on a stool in a corner of the room, near an open supply closet. To be honest, they looked friendly. The upward tilt of his little face revealed that curiosity. (Anything can be anthropomorphic!) An orb operator named Nick walked me through the process. In the World ID app, I checked a few boxes saying I understood what was happening. Then I checked a box saying it was OK for the company to store my iris photos and use them in training data. I did this because there was a person standing next to me and I didn’t want to feel stingy. I am an organ donor. I always tip. And I didn’t want to be rude to the machine.

Nick held up the orb for me while I peered into it, which was actually scary for a second because a bunch of little red lights came on. But it was quickly replaced by a white ring of light and a confirmation that I had successfully verified myself “as a real and unique person”. I sent this information to my boyfriend and he said I shouldn’t do this. Well, too late. I sent this information to my editor, who I thought would be more than excited. He said, “Congratulations” and then “Now what.” I honestly had no idea; I think we are looking forward to the future.

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