I can explain Bitcoin to my kids. That’s one of my ways to know if I understand something. If your twelve-year-old can take a snap quiz after you’re done and get an A or B, then you know your stuff. (Right now my kids could take an exam on such diverse topics as World War 2, Personal Finance, and Don’t Believe Everything Your Mother Says About Me.)
Of course, getting acquainted with a subject requires time and effort. In my quest to understand Bitcoin, Etherium, and other cryptocurrencies I listened to financial guru Phil Ferguson’s two-part episode (242 and 243) on Bitcoin and then I asked him some questions when he went on my podcast, Naked Diner.
What is surprising, however, is how the mining (obtaining new “coins” by solving series of complicated equations) of cryptocurrencies can have unintended consequences. I’m sure some of you have heard that mining can take up a tremendous amount of electricity.
What you may not know is mining for Bitcoins and Etherium is getting in the way of finding extraterrestrial life. The BBC News story Crypto-currency craze ‘hinders search for alien life’ tells the tale.
Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers want to expand operations at two observatories.
However, it has found that key computer chips are in short supply.
“We’d like to use the latest GPUs [graphics processing units]… and we can’t get ’em,” said Dan Werthimer.
It’s supply and demand. There’s only so many high-quality GPUs to go around. There’s a big business built around mining cryptocurrencies. The search for ET is taking the back seat.
“At Seti we want to look at as many frequency channels as we possibly can because we don’t know what frequency ET will be broadcasting on and we want to look for lots of different signal types – is it AM or FM, what communication are they using?” explained Dr Werthimer, who is chief scientist at the Berkeley Seti Research Center.
“That takes a lot of computing power.”
If something akin to the Bitcoin craze was around during the Age of Discovery, then the Americas could’ve been left alone for quite some time. “Sorry, Christopher Columbus, we’d love to fund your exploration, but we’re focusing on blockchain right now.”
I’m guessing the native people of the Americas would’ve been OK with that.
The Seti scientists are currently trying to improve its capacity for analysing such data at two observatories – Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia.
But the institute has been hit by the GPU shortage.
“We’ve got the money, we’ve contacted the vendors, and they say, ‘we just don’t have them’,” said Dr Werthimer.
And I’m sharing this with you all because it reveals something about human nature. Something comical. Maybe something tragic. It’s the fact we’re slowing down real progress for the ethereal promises of tulips.