It is possible that when compared to rare metals, bitcoin mining is not as wasteful in terms of environmental impact, but it remains clear that there could be better and more efficient uses of cryptocurrency mining power than solving arbitrary cryptographic problems.
This belief can be seen in a number of innovative projects announced in recent weeks that seek to use bitcoin's mining power to do everything from storing genetic material to archiving important data.
This increasingly important question about the future of one of bitcoin's core industries arrives at a time industrial mining has already come to replace the network of individual miners that once powered the bitcoin network, and major voices in the industry are beginning to make their views on the matter heard.
Paul Vernon, the founder of US-based digital currency exchange Cryptsy, recently said:
“That would be something that would be really nice to have: a proof of work where the work is really doing something, solving problems.”
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some abstract and real-life problems in the world today that could benefit from the huge amount of computing power currently being generated by the bitcoin network.
1. Protein folding
Like the bitcoin network, protein folding, a process that aims to study diseases, now requires custom ASICs. But that’s because of the huge amount of computation required for this scientific process, not because of a financial incentive as in bitcoin mining.
Protein structures within the body, when improperly folded, can cause allergies and neurodegenerative disorders. While regular protein folding is normal, irregular folding of the body's proteins can result in Alzheimer's disease and certain forms of cancer, among other maladies.
Because of this, simulations of different ways that proteins can be folded provide researchers with a number of insights. It requires a lot of computational power and could use the efforts of a distributed system like the one supported by bitcoin.
2. Prime numbers
A prime number is one that is larger than 1 with no positive divisors other than 1 or itself. According to mathematical principles, there can be an infinite number of prime numbers.
That means there are still a lot of numbers to find – and that makes for a good candidate as a cryptocurrency proof of work. In fact, there is a coin – called primecoin – that is being used to find new prime numbers.
According to Coinmarketcap, primecoin ranks number 23 among all cryptocurrencies, with a market cap over $2m. Primecoin’s official website states that the network searches Cunningham chains and bi-twin chains, which it says could prove important in scientific fields such as physics.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is a network of private- and government-funded projects that aims to use various scientific methods to search for intelligent life.
These projects are well known for something called SETI@Home, a distributed initiative that allows users to help find intelligent life. When looking at the details regarding SETI@Home, one begins to see the similarities between it and distributed systems such as bitcoin.
SETI@Home runs a process called signal analysis in the background of users' computers. There are over 129,000 active users contributing 676 teraflops of computational power to the system.
The question is – how much more power could be put to work if SETI established its own distributed coin?
4. Solar power
If proof of work is going to cost money in terms of electricity, then why not provide some incentive for using renewable energy?
A cryptocurrency called solarcoin grants those who own solar-generating devices one coin per megawatt-hour of energy created, thus rewarding those who provide this source of energy.
The Solarcoin Foundation plans to distribute 99% of coins to those who generate solar power. However, the concept is struggling to gain traction – that may be because even though solarcoin is only being distributed to solar facility owners, they might not be familiar with the concept of cryptocurrency.
In addition, the approximately 98 billion solarcoins are still being hashed via the scrypt proof of work algorithm, creating a drain on the system's production.
According to Coinmarketcap, solarcoin is ranked number 124 among all cryptocurencies, and its market capitalization is only $53,166, suggesting the coin currently has a very low level of adoption.
5. Climate change
Whether one believes in global warming or not, scientists are attempting to build models to see what the global climate may look like for humans in the future.
It is an ambitious study – something that requires a lot of computational power in order to build models that take into account the massive amounts of physical data collected by scientists.
There are a few distributed projects that are tackling the problem of forecasting climate. The most popular, called Climate@Home and spearheaded by NASA, has amassed 28.7 gigaflops of computing power.
The system uses distributed computers to perform “mathematical equations that quantitatively describe how atmospheric temperature, air pressure, winds, water vapor, clouds, precipitation and other factors all respond to the Sun's heating of the Earth's surface and atmosphere,” according to Climate@Home’s website.
The SETI@Home and Climate@Home projects use an open source system called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). And there actually is a cryptocurrency available now that utilizes BOINC projects as a proof of work.
It's called gridcoin, and it allows users to obtain block rewards from signing up to use CPU power for BOINC projects.
Users can choose the BOINC initiative that they want to contribute – it could be life science, mathematics or software testing, among other numerous projects – and be rewarded for their portion of computational work.
Gridcoin uses the scrypt algorithm to confirm transactions, but the system requires any miner participating to join a BOINC project.
“We aim to justify our carbon production in the form of being the first scientific philanthropic cryptocurrency,” the gridcoin website states.
The energy requirements and environmental impact of traditional proof of work mining cannot be ignored. ASIC chips for cyrptocurrency mining require ever-growing amounts of power, and once a mining rig is rendered obsolete it is destined for the scrap pile.
So, whether it is solving real-world problems or theoretical ones, there are efficiency gains to be had with cryptocurrency proof of work.
The question is: what is the right function for putting hashing power to good use?
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