Bitcoin cryptocurrency craze is stopping us from finding aliens, astronomer claims

Bitcoin miners and ET explorers are competing for GPUs. Kevin Quezada  Unsplash

According to a recent report, scientists are hitting a brick wall in trying to secure orders for the hardware they need - that is when they are not getting busted for using Russian supercomputers for mining - to answer one of the most fundamental questions humanity has: are we alone in the universe?

Mining cryptos like Bitcoin require miners to solve wickedly complex mathematical puzzles to validate each transaction.

Like mining, the search for intelligent life also requires some serious computational power.

Researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, are in a jam.

"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?" he said.

Berkely SETI has around 100 GPUs processing data from massive listening arrays that can detect even the faintest radio frequencies coming across from a farflung phenomenon in the universe.

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"We'd like to use the latest GPUs [graphics processing units]", explained Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the Berkeley Seti Research Center, "and we can't get 'em".

Seti is now trying to improve its capacity for analysing such data at two observatories - Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia.

Other radio-astronomers have been affected. The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array in South Africa, which received a grant from the National Science Foundation, soon found out that the price of GPUs had doubled.

As the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies took off at the tail end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, so did GPU - and, by extension, the price of graphics cards. A contingency budget is helping for now, but if the supply gets more scarce, the operation might not be able to continue its research, according to Parsons. It needs GPUs to scan radio frequencies in the hope of understanding how the first stars and galaxies formed.

But Mr Hickey has also noticed that GPUs are now being sold on sites such as Ebay at inflated prices.

As the GPUs become increasingly hard to buy - and eye-wateringly expensive if they are available - it appears that people looking to mine for cryptocurrencies, such as Monero, are buying up graphics cards in large quantities straight from the factory. "When it comes to finding the aliens, the more computer power you have, the quicker you can do the search".

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