With Bitcoin prices rallying after a ride in the dumps, the demand for cryptocurrencies doesn't show signs of letting up any time soon. But that's ruffled the feathers of some scientists, who say that cryptocurrency mining potentially is stopping them from finding signs of intelligent life in outer space.

As in, aliens.

Now, before you get your chuckle fest on, let's understand their gripe, which actually isn't as "out there" as the organisms the scientists are looking for. As Chris Baraniuk explains in an article for the BBC, cryptocurrency mining is a process where individuals use computers to solve complex mathematical puzzles. This helps validate the transactions made with the cryptocurrency. Miners receive small cryptocurrency payments as a reward for their work, so the more you can mine, the bigger your potential profit is.

But mining typically requires tons of computer processing power. Miners get that through stacking graphic processing units (GPUs) together. These are high-performance chips that, while designed mainly to handle video and display needs, also can process huge amounts of data for other applications, especially those requiring repetitive computations.

So as crypto miners snap up more and more GPUs, suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand. Scientists looking for intelligent life have a hard time finding the chips they need to look at a full range of signal frequency channels. And when they do find them, the cost is often significantly higher than it's been in the past.

Why is this a huge problem?

Looking for intelligent life isn't the only kind of research that requires a lot of computer processing power. For example, researchers need computing power for things like nuclear test simulations. Subsequently, the increasing demand for GPUs might have an effect on a huge range of studies and industries, delaying or even stopping projects. That might have an indirect influence on the direction companies take in the future.

Even when research is out of the picture, businesses might find the shortage of GPUs hard to take for other reasons. For instance, artificial intelligence programs usually depend on lots of computing power. While cloud computing can help, remember, the cloud is still just a bunch of computers--that is, remote processors--networked together, meaning that the power of the chips is still important.

Know what you're giving up

The GPU shortage won't last forever, and in the future, we'll undoubtedly develop new and better means of processing, such as the perfection and generalization of quantum computing. But the grumbling of intelligent life researchers highlights that, at least right now, there are very real opportunity costs involved with cryptocurrencies, with the new forms of money reaching into areas investors might not even be thinking about. And because the blockchain technology that's central to cryptocurrencies has so many positive implications, we might be running a little blind about these hidden side effects. If you're looking to cryptocurrencies and blockchain for any reason, stay balanced and first consider all the ramifications, including what others might not be able to do in the upcoming months because of mining.

Published on: Feb 20, 2018
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