Scientists looking for signs of extraterrestrial life have a big problem. And everything is due to the rise of cryptocurrencies, according to an expert in radio astronomy.
The researchers specialised in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI, want to expand their operations in two observatories.
But they face the shortage of a key hardware component.
“We want to use the latest version of graphics cards and we can not find them on the market,” radio astronomer Dan Werthimer , a researcher at the Center for Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California.
The graphics cards , also called graphics processing units or GPU by its acronym , they are used to lighten the load of the central processor or CPU in graphics applications such as video games.
But the demand for graphics cards has skyrocketed due to cryptocurrency mining.
“This phenomenon is limiting our search for extraterrestrial life and our efforts to answer questions like are we alone in the universe?” Werthimer said.
“This problem is new, we have faced it in the last two months.”
Miners and radio astronomers
Mining or getting a coin like Bitcoin requires connecting computers to a global network and using them to solve complex mathematical problems.
These actions are part of the validation process of the transactions carried out by those who use the cryptocurrency.
And as a reward for their work, the miners receive a payment in crypto currencies.
Graphics cards, on the other hand, are high performance chips that are not only used in video games, they can be combined to mine the cryptocurrencies, and are used by radio astronomers, and others interested in processing large amounts of data.
“In the case of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we examine as many frequencies as possible because, because we do not know in which one of them ET can communicate back with,” Werthimer said.
“We will use AM, FM or any other type of communication, we have to look at many different types of signals, and that requires enormous computing power. ”
“They’re sold out”
Werthimer explained that in the case of some telescopes, the University of Berkeley uses about 100 graphics cards to analyze data.
These are telescopes capable of capturing radio frequencies from very distant places outside the Solar System and phenomena such as the collapse of stars.
Mr. Werthimer and his colleagues at UC Berkeley, are trying to expand the data analysis capabilities of two observatories, Green Bank in the state of West Virginia in the United States, and Parkes in Australia .
The big problem is the lack of graphics cards, again.
“We have the money, we contact the sellers, but they tell us they sold out .” he said.
An executive at Nvidia , one of the leading chip companies, said last week in a conference with his investors, that the company “is working very hard” to respond to the high demand for graphics cards in the market.
Other radio astronomers have also been affected.
A group of scientists looking for evidence of the first stars of the universe were recently surprised to find that the cost of graphic cards had doubled .
“We received funds from the National Science Foundation of the United States and we want to expand our telescope,” said Aaron Parsons , a professor at UC Berkeley.
The telescope that Professor Parsons refers to is known as HERA , a radio telescope located in Southern African that is a collaboration between the United States, the United Kingdom and Southern Africa.
The telescope was designed to capture very low frequencies of radio waves emitted by the re ionized hydrogen gas that permeated the universe in its early stages.
The graphics cards are necessary to join the data of the many Hera antennas.
Three months ago, Hera researchers had budgeted the necessary spending for a set of graphic cards of US $500 each. But the current price of each card is US $1000 and climbing.
“We bought many of those cards and now we need an extra US $32,000,” said Parsons.
The scientist expressed concern about the possibility that some projects should be suspended altogether if the shortage of graphic cards is exacerbated.
Thanks in part to the recent boom in cryptocurrency prices such as Bitcoin and Ethereum , mining these virtual currencies has become more popular than ever.
The Bitcoin miners have gone on to use mostly Asic chips , special for operations of this type.
But it’s still possible to use graphics cards to profit by mining Ethereum, according to Mathew Hick, a cybersecurity expert at Hacker House.
“You can use GPU graphics cards to get a small benefit. You will not earn millions, but if you operate with 12 or 24 graphic cards, you recover in six months what you invested in the chips. ”
Hick pointed out that graphics cards are versatile. The experts in cybersecurity use them when they test the security of passwords trying to decipher them, with computers that make millions of attempts with different combinations “.
Hick said that graphics cards are now sold on sites like Ebay “at inflated prices.”
“And it’s getting harder and harder to find suppliers and cards.”
Meagan Kozlovs is a reporter for Debate Report. She’s worked and interned at Global News Toronto and CHECX. Megan is based in Toronto and covers issues affecting her city. In addition to her severe milk shake addiction, she’s a Netflix enthusiast, a red wine drinker, and a voracious reader.