Cryptocurrency Mining Is Hurting Research, As Well As the PC Building Community

Aaron Parsons is on a quest to discover the first stars that formed in our Universe around 13 billion years ago. Unfortunately, one big hurdle that is getting in his way is cryptocurrency mining.

The craze for mining cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and bitcoins is draining the market of GPUs or Graphics Processing Units. Graphics card prices have not only spiked but the major manufacturers – AMD and NVidia are struggling to keep the market well fed.

At UC Berkley, Parsons is working with radio telescopes. Radio telescopes are made up of hundreds of antennas that pick-up radio waves that are floating about in the universe. All this data need to be processed in real time. This would allow us to understand how our universe transitioned from hot plasma to what it is right now.

What do GPUs do?

GPUs or graphics processing units are the processing unit that is responsible for anything that you see on the screen. GPUs are there in your phone, or in your PC. GPUs make it possible for operating systems to have smooth user interfaces and animations. They also allow you to play games.

What sets apart GPU from CPUs is that GPUs have a larger number of low powered cores running in parallel. For example, the AMD Ryzen Threadripper – a multi-tasking focused CPU comes with 16 cores. Nvidia’s Titan V GPU comes with 5120 CUDA cores. AMD Vega64 comes with 4096 Stream processors.

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These large number of processors allow a huge level of parallel computation. This is generally required in computer graphics. In computer games, all parts of the scene are rendered at once, no matter how complicated the 3D geometry and textures are.

Researchers can also leverage the GPU architecture to do parallel computation, something that is required in data mining or machine learning. Parsons also need GPUs to render the images from the radio telescopes and identify them. These sorts of images do not really need a supercomputer, but a powerful enough PC – something with a lot of GPUs.

Parsons is currently trying to upgrade his radio telescope, called the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA), to a total of 350 antennas in South Africa. But this week, he found that the GPUs he needs to process data from all those antennas doubled in price — from $500 to $1,000 apiece. That will cost an extra $32,000 that won’t go to paying extra graduate student researchers.

Why Cryptocurrency needs GPUs?

Cryptocurrency miners are buying GPUs like crazy, creating a shortage in the market. Cryptocurrency also takes advantage of parallel processing. Creating new cryptocurrencies requires solving complex mathematical problems. This ensures that the network remains safe. However, it has massively increased power consumption, as well as GPU prices.

Those who are building gaming PCs are suffering too. Most gamers need GPUs to run high-end games. However, they would need a single GPU and not multiple GPUs like cryptocurrency mining needs. Moreover, the price of flash storage, such as RAM has also spiked. This has affected all PC builders. RAM is essential for all PCs, at the office, at home, or at research labs.

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For Parsons, it could mean having to build a smaller telescope, which wouldn’t detect faint radio signals, as well as a large telescope, would. That would hinder his ability to see as far back in time and ultimately answer those fundamental questions about “the story of our origin, how did we get to be where we are, when we are in the universe,” he says.

It’s not just one case

Astronomer Keith Vanderlinde at the University of Toronto had similar problems back in 2014 when he was building a prototype version of his radio telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME). “We designed the whole thing, priced it all out, and then suddenly bitcoin showed up in the headlines and overnight the price of GPUs doubled. And within a week, they were all gone, which was sort of a pain,” Vanderlinde tells The Verge. “When we needed 50 [GPUs] back in 2014, it was me on eBay with a personal credit card all night long buying individual cards.”

At the time, in January 2014, Vanderlinde’s team was buying AMD 280x boards, and the prices for one went from $220 to $440 (CAD), he says. But it’s not exactly the extra money that creates problems. The budgets for radio telescopes like the ones Vanderlinde and Parsons work with runs in the millions of dollars, so there’s some slack for a few extra thousand bucks. The real crux is “the instability that makes it hard to predict,” Vanderlinde says. “Being unable to forecast what things are going to cost, it just makes for a logistical nightmare.”

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When there’s a shortage, it’s virtually impossible to buy the GPUs in bulk — and dealing with vendors can be hard. “It’s really difficult to buy them in the quantity we want,” says Jack Hickish, a digital engineer working with Parsons on the HERA telescope. “The vendors we’ve spoken to are hesitant to promise us 40, and if I can get that availability, I can get a quote. But [if] you order a week from now, you have to quote again because they might be gone.”

Without GPUs, the telescopes cannot be even turned on. Leaving astronomy aside, even a lot of biological research work that requires machine learning is hindered by rising cost of GPUs. A lot of people who rely on GPUs to get their work done are hoping that the cryptocurrency bubble to burst. Some other cryptocurrencies cannot be mined on GPUs also. If these currencies grain more traction, then GPU prices will fall. All in all, it is a bad time for PC builders, as well as researchers.

Source: The Verge


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