GPU shortage caused by crypto craze is hindering search for ET

15 Feb 2018

The Karl G Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) observatory in New Mexico, US. Image: Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

The thirst for mining cryptocurrencies is leaving many scientists on the hunt for ET scrambling for the necessary hardware.

While some of the most popular cryptocurrencies are noticeably a lot worse off than what they were a few months ago, the demand for computer hardware to mine them – most notably graphics processing units (GPUs) – is still having a wide-ranging and damaging effect on unrelated areas.

Energy experts in Iceland recently revealed that because of the country’s abundant supply of renewable geothermal energy, many crypto miners have flocked there to run their GPUs.

This will result in a situation where mining will soon outpace the amount of energy needed for people’s homes this year.

Across the world, the demand for GPUs has not only resulted in a bubble in the processor market, but a considerable shortage, leaving many of those who need them scrambling to find any.

This is the case at SETI, where researchers say they simply cannot get the hardware they need to search the universe for extraterrestrial (ET) life.

Speaking with the BBC, Dr Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the Berkeley SETI Research Center, said that the telescopes they use to search for radio signals in space require not only a lot of patience and time, but significant computing power.

“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.

‘We’re buying a lot of these things’

For example, the telescopes that Werthimer and his team use at Berkeley require around 100 GPUs to make sense of all the data that is coming through. Now that the crypto mining craze has set in, the organisation is finding it hard to bring in more hardware for additional facilities.

Saying that the shortage became noticeable just a few months ago, Werthimer stressed that the organisation has the funds to buy GPUs and has been dealing with vendors, but have been told that they have simply run out.

It isn’t just those searching for alien life that are affected, however, as the neighbouring University of California, Berkeley, has also come across the same problem. It needs GPUs to scan radio frequencies in the hope of understanding how the first stars and galaxies formed.

“We’ll be able to weather it but it is coming out of our contingency budget,” said Prof Aaron Parsons who is leading the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Arrau at the university.

“We’re buying a lot of these things – it’s going to end up costing about $32,000 extra.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic