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Coinmining frenzy is making it hard for us to find aliens

As cryptocurrency values have soared, so too has the cost of the hardware needed to mine them - if you can even buy the GPUs, given the shortages.

Forget Iceland’s energy getting sucked up by cryptocoin miners. We can’t find the aliens!
You need a few things to mine cryptocurrency, or to do a bunch of other things, including build a gaming PC from scratch, run radio-astronomy operations, or search the skies for incoming messages from extraterrestrials.
The things you need include a whole lot of preferably renewable energy (thanks, Iceland!). It’s also helpful to have access to data centers and a nice, chilly environment to help with cooling them (thanks again, Iceland!).
You also need a pile of graphics processing units (GPUs): the high-end computer chips from manufacturers like AMD or Nvidia that miners use to build their mining machines.
Unfortunately for gamers, radio astronomers and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) researchers, the prices on GPUs have been going nuts for a few months. At the end of January, when cryptocurrency values had soared, they dragged GPU costs right on up with them.
Gaming news site Polygon last month reported these then-current examples of GPU prices:

The cheapest price for MSI’s GeForce GTX 1070 Gaming X (MSRP $459.99) is $945.99 on Amazon and $988.99 on Newegg; it’s not much lower at Micro Center, which has it listed at $919.99.

And that’s when you can get the GPUs at all.

At least one retailer, Micro Center, is keeping the supply lines open for its core customers (gamers), reduces the prices for those building gaming rigs, and is limiting GPU quantities to others, including both cryptocurrency miners and apparently Seti and other researchers. Here’s a letter Micro Center posted to its “Valued Build Customers” about the policies.
Likewise, Nvidia has advised retailers to make arrangements to make sure that they’re prioritizing gamers over miners.
Where does that leave the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life? Sadly GPU-starved.
Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the Berkeley Seti Research Center, told the BBC that the center would like to use the latest GPUs. It has the money, but it just can’t get them.

This is a new problem. It’s only happened on orders we’ve been trying to make in the last couple of months… That’s limiting our search for extraterrestrials, to try to answer the question, ‘Are we alone? Is there anybody out there?’

At some telescopes, Berkeley Seti has around 100 GPUs crunching data from large listening arrays, he told the BBC. The arrays can pick up the faintest whispers of radio frequencies coming into the solar system from elsewhere in the universe, including from natural phenomena such as collapsing stars.
If Seti could get the GPUs, they could use them to improve their ability to analyze data at two observatories: Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia.
It’s looking like the only thing that could possibly make that goal achievable is for cryptocoin values to crash, and to drag down the cost of GPUs with them.


> It’s looking like the only thing that could possibly make that goal achievable is for cryptocoin values to crash, and to drag down the cost of GPUs with them.
Or the passage of time. If demand is sustained, investment in greater capacity production facilities will occur.


It’s not only radio astronomy processing at the telescopes or at the data centers at Berkeley that is being choked. Most of the “crunching” of this data (the BOINC Seti@Home project) is done by volunteers world-wide on their own systems with GPUs, and I am one of them. BOINC has no fewer than 12 different published projects that can run on GPUs.
I can feel their pain when I read these projects’ user forums – very few GPUs are available.


I remember up until about 2014 or so, you could buy a budget GPU card for a double-digit cost. In these past 3 years or so, everything worth owning was three digits. The only 2-digit GPUs were old technology. Even now, you have to settle for a NVidia 730 if you want a sub-$50 card.


I’m officially old and jaded. The E.T. question still fascinates me, but I’m pleased the password cracker snakes will also find themselves crushed under this very same boot.
PS: won’t last year’s model still work almost as well? Or are these guys just now realizing that GPU clusters can analyze their data trove faster than that old Pentium II they’ve got in the back closet?


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