(CBS Local) — Scientists searching space for intelligent life already have a difficult job, but some are now saying their task is being made even tougher because of digital currencies like Bitcoin.
“We’d like to use the latest GPUs (graphics processing units)… and we can’t get ’em,” Dr. Dan Werthimer told the BBC. The chief scientist of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI Project, says the surging demand for GPUs from cryptocurrency miners is leaving the computer chips in short supply.
“This is a new problem, it’s only happened on orders we’ve been trying to make in the last couple of months,” Dr. Werthimer added. “That’s limiting our search for extra-terrestrials, to try to answer the question, ‘Are we alone? Is there anybody out there?'”
Graphics processing units are high-performance chips used for processing large amounts of computer data. They have also been used for powering high quality video games and are now being stacked together by cryptocurrency miners to “farm” the online cash.
For SETI, the GPUs are needed to process all the different frequency channels the group monitors in outer space. “We don’t know what frequency ET will be broadcasting on and we want to look for lots of different signal types,” Dr. Werthimer explains. SETI’s telescope and lab at UC Berkeley reportedly uses around 100 GPUs to crunch all of the data coming in from space.
The boom in cryptocurrency’s popularity hasn’t just meant smaller supplies of GPUs available, it’s also sent the price soaring as well. “Strong demand in the cryptocurrency market exceeded our expectations,” tech company Nvidia’s CFO Colette Kress said, via Ars Technica.
“We’ll be able to weather it but it is coming out of our contingency budget.” said Prof. Aaron Parsons of UC Berkeley. “We’re buying a lot of these things, it’s going to end up costing about $32,000 extra.” Prof. Parson and his team were reportedly buying their GPUs for a radio telescope in South Africa. Since his team initially priced the chips at around $500 in 2017, the price has doubled to over $1,000 each.