Is Bitcoin Hindering the Search for Extraterrestrial Life?

The search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) may be hindered by the mining of Bitcoin, as well as other crypto-currencies, according to a new report. Astronomers utilizing radio telescopes to search the skies in search of alien civilizations are having difficulties obtaining the high-end computer equipment they need, as more advanced computer hardware is used creating new digital currency, the authors contend.

Bitcoin miners and SETI researchers both require ultra-powerful computer chips, known as graphics processing units (GPU’s). Astronomers on the hunt for extraterrestrial signals are hoping to expand their operations to a pair of new observatories, at Green Bank in West Virginia, as well as Parkes, Australia. Astronomers found, however, that needed equipment is unavailable, due to the cryptocurrency craze.

“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?” said Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the Berkeley SETI Research Center.

Graphics processing units are traditionally designed to run video games. However, this hardware can be connected in such a way that they are useful in high-demand operations, such as SETI, or the mathematical computations underlying block chain technology, on which these new exchanges rely.

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Astronomers combing the skies in search of little green men aren’t the only researchers feeling the supply pinch for high-end computer chips. Radio telescopes around the world are seeing prices for new equipment rise as demand for these chips skyrockets.

“The cost of our scientific computing equipment has doubled because they are using GPUs to mine bitcoins,” Aaron Parsons, professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley tweeted.

Cryptocurrencies are a form of digital currency, and new digital “coins” can only be created through the analysis of complex calculations, requiring powerful computers and vast quantities of electricity to solve. Operators who solve these algorithms are rewarded with digital currency, driving demand. Bitcoin was the first of these cryptocurrencies to be developed, although hundreds of different versions, such as Ethereum, are available today.

On February 9 of this year, BBC reported a pair of Russian nuclear scientists were arrested for re-appropriating a top-secret supercomputer designed to test weapons so that they could mine cryptocurrencies.

The price of a single Bitcoin, which varies wildly, reached over $19,000 USD per coin in middle of December 2017, before dropping in value to around $6,000 in the first week of February 2018.

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