The Download: Deception, exploited workers, and free cash: How Worldcoin recruited its first half a million test users

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Deception, exploited workers, and free cash: How Worldcoin recruited its first half a million test users

On a sunny morning last December, Iyus Ruswandi, a 35-year-old furniture maker in the village of Gunungguruh, Indonesia, was woken up early by his mother. A technology company was holding some kind of “social assistance giveaway” at the local Islamic elementary school, she said, and she urged him to go.

When he got there, representatives of Worldcoin were collecting emails and phone numbers, or aiming a futuristic metal orb at villagers’ faces to scan their irises and other biometric data. What was going on?

Two months before Worldcoin appeared in Ruswandi’s village, the San Francisco–based company called Tools for Humanity emerged from stealth mode. Worldcoin was its product. 

The company’s website described Worldcoin as an Ethereum-based “new, collectively owned global currency that will be distributed fairly to as many people as possible.” Everyone in the world would get a free share—if they agreed to an iris scan with a device that resembles a decapitated robot head, which the company refers to as the “chrome orb.” 

The orb was necessary, the website continued, because of Worldcoin’s commitment to fairness: each person should get his or her allotted share of the digital currency—and no more. To ensure there was no double-dipping, the chrome orb would scan participants’ irises and several other biometric data points and then cryptographically confirm that they were human and unique in Worldcoin’s database. 

Gunungguruh was not alone in receiving a visit from Worldcoin. MIT Technology Review has interviewed over 35 individuals in six countries—Indonesia, Kenya, Sudan, Ghana, Chile, and Norway—who either worked for or on behalf of Worldcoin, had been scanned, or were unsuccessfully recruited to participate.

Our investigation reveals wide gaps between Worldcoin’s public messaging, which focused on protecting privacy, and what users experienced. We found that the company’s representatives used deceptive marketing practices, collected more personal data than it acknowledged, and failed to obtain meaningful informed consent. These practices may violate multiple laws. Read the full investigation. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo and Adi Renaldi

This horse-riding astronaut is a milestone in AI’s ability to make sense of the world

A new era for AI: When OpenAI revealed its picture-making neural network DALL-E in early 2021, the program’s human-like ability to combine different concepts into images was striking. Now, the San Francisco-based lab has announced its successor, DALL-E 2, which produces much better images, is easier to use, and—unlike the original version—will be released to the public (eventually).

What’s changed? Image-generation models have come a long way in just a few years. While previous results have been distorted and blurry, DALL-E 2’s creations can be stunning: ask it to generate images of astronauts on horses (see above), teddy-bear scientists. or sea otters in the style of Vermeer, and it does so with near photorealism. 

What now? The AI raises questions about what we mean by intelligence, especially with regards to its creativity. Read the full story (and check out the amazing images!)

—Will Douglas Heaven

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Meta wants to launch its own virtual currency for the metaverse
Anyone for Zuck Bucks? (FT $)
+ Memecoins sparked by viral moments are risky investments. (WP $)
+ Female celebrities want other women to join the NFT bros cashing in on the system. (WP $)
The owner of the NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet is selling it for 16 times what he paid. (Bloomberg $)

2 Covid cases aren’t rising in the US—yet
A new wave is looking less likely than a few weeks ago, but cases could still climb. (NYT $)
Clinical trials will need to start in May if we want new vaccines, officials warn. (NYT $)
Catching covid increases likelihood of developing fatal blood clots. (The Guardian)
Tens of millions of people are still suffering from long covid. (CNN)
We still don’t know how big a problem long covid is among children. (TR)

3 Europe is building a vast facial recognition policing database
Opponents believe it could be the world’s most extensive biometric surveillance infrastructure. (Wired $)
+ Facial recognition is being used in Ukraine to verify travelers’ identities. (NYT $)

Google has removed apps from its Play Store that contain secret data-harvesting code
The company responsible paid developers to insert the code into more than a dozen apps. (WSJ $)
+ Internet advertisers are embracing new ways to gather, and monetize, your data. (NYT $)
Apple’s AirTags are being used to stalk women across the US. (Motherboard)

5 France’s far right is copying Trump’s online disinformation tactics
And social media platforms have failed to curb its extremist messaging. (Bloomberg $)

6 A monk is advising the Pope on AI
The Church is worried about how it can worsen equality. (FT $)
LinkedIn’s AI is showing its workings, to its clients’ delight. (Reuters

7 Twitch viewers are derailing streams with their emotional confessions
It’s leaving streamers unsure how to deal with “trauma dumping” in their chats. (Input Mag)

8 In this hyperconnected day and age, who gets to keep a secret?
We’re attempting to safeguard privacy with outdated tools. (The Atlantic $)

9 Is this the perfect home office setup?
It’s not ideal for gaming, but everything else is 👌 (Wired $)
Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a home office is… pretty boring. (Engadget)

10 How a Zimbabwean town became an unlikely remote working hub
Black market SIM cards have turned it into an affordable internet haven. (Rest of World)

Quote of the Day

“The Taliban cannot erase us, they can’t.”

—Zarifa Ghafari, former Afghan politician and women’s rights activist, tells CNN of her plans to build a center to train and educate women living in Kabul.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ I love these colorful birds impersonating living meme Guy Fieri.
+ The new Netflix documentary on the rise and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch looks… intense.
+ Fans of The Smiths, and Joy Division will want to blaze a trail to Manchester’s new British pop archive opening next month.
+ This first known fossil of a dinosaur killed the day the giant asteroid struck Earth is pretty incredible.
+ In more dinosaur news, why are we all so obsessed with the T.Rex?
+ More dispatches from the cutting edge of terrifying Furbys.
+ Victory Brinker has quite the voice, at just 10 years old.

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