Cryptocurrency craze may hinder advances in astronomical research

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A cryptocurrency craze has swept through the nation as students and professionals alike are investing in bitcoin and Ethereum, but the spike in interest may be hindering astronomical research.

Because of an increased demand for graphic processing units, or GPUs, astronomers are facing challenges in moving forward with their work.

Campus associate professor of astronomy Aaron Parsons and his team are building the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array, or HERA, telescope to explore the first signs of life and stars in the galaxy.

HERA consists of several hundred parabolic dishes; GPUs combine their signals and allow HERA to act as one dish. According to HERA assistant researcher Jack Hickish, this essentially allows a computer to do what a big telescope lens does.

Parsons said the cost of electronics is expected to decrease over time, and as a result, the team planned on waiting “until the last minute” to purchase the needed technology. Much to the team’s surprise, however, the price of GPUs doubled, adding an additional $32,000 to project expenses.

“In the long term, I hope (the high demand for GPUs) can bring down the cost of computing because there’s a bigger market for this scientific computing,” Parsons said. “In the short term, though, it’s a pain.”

GPUs have a wide range of uses, which contribute to their high demand. According to Parsons, GPUs boast a “huge” amount of computing power, as they can help computer codes run up to 100 times faster than usual. These small chips can also simulate the “physics” of video games and play a crucial role in assisting radio astronomy.

In the realm of cryptocurrency, GPUs assist in mining for the virtual currency by providing an immense amount of processing power. Former Blockchain at Berkeley president Max Fang said the power harnessed from a GPU is a “step up” from that of a central processing unit, or CPU.

“With certain cryptocurrencies, their cryptographic algorithms can be more efficiently processed by GPUs, such as Ethereum/Ether,” said Berkeley Blockchain Lab co-lead Steven Chen in an email.

Fang, who sells GPU investments, said he was disappointed by the GPU price spike. The price of GPUs doubled in about 2013, and Fang said it became harder for him to profit.

Parsons said he thinks cryptocurrency mining is driving up the cost of scientific computing.

“If you look at why its doubling, it’s because people who are doing cryptocurrency mining can make money off of GPUs,” Parsons said. “They are buying up all these GPUs to make money off them.”

Hickish said he thinks the GPU price spike, though a nuisance, is not directly detrimental to researchers, as GPUs make up a considerably small expense of a larger budget.

“To the general public, the fluctuation in the price of cryptocurrency brought a lot of interest in it,” Chen said in an email. “From an engineering perspective, however, the underlying blockchain technology is revolutionary.”

Contact Ella Smith at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @EllaSmithCA.