Is the bitcoin network the most powerful distributed computing system -- hence, the most powerful computer, period -- on Earth?
Maybe, although the designation comes marked with a few asterisks.
According to Bitcoin Charts, which tracks activity on the distributed global network of bitcoin mining computers, the network has achieved a hashrate (the rate at which new blocks of bitcoins are mined) of 1039.79 petaflops, or more than 1 exaflops. As The Genesis Block points out, that's more than eight times the performance level of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers.
(A few notes on terminology here: flops is a measure of how many "floating-point operations per second" a computer can achieve. A petaflop is 1015 (one quadrillion) flops, while an exaflop is 1018 (one quintillion) flops, or 1,000 petaflops.)
While a commenter on The Genesis Block post notes the bitcoin network is only six times -- rather than eight times -- faster than the top 500 supercomputers, the achievement is nothing to sneeze at. Still, there are a couple of caveats to the record:
One, as The Genesis Block points out, bitcoin mining relies on integer calculations rather than flops. So we're not really comparing apples to apples.
Two, the estimates used to convert hashes to flops (resulting in about 12,700 flops per hash) date to 2011, before ASIC devices became the norm for bitcoin mining. ASICs don't handle flops at all, so the current comparison is very rough.
Applying the 12,700 flops per hash rate to the leading supercomputers shows the top 10, with a combined speed of 48 petaflops, have just 5 percent the muscle of today's bitcoin network, according to The Genesis Block. Even adding in the remaining 490 most powerful supercomputers achieves just a fraction of what the bitcoin network can do.
"But let's be honest," The Genesis Block concludes, "these computers have better things to work on like curing cancer, solving global warming and monitoring banking transactions."
As Quartz puts it, "what bitcoin has wrought is the world's fastest supercomputer" ... but one that's good only for mining bitcoins, and nothing else.
"What a waste," Gizmodo opines. "(C)an you imagine what we could do if this energy was put behind other tough problems? We'll you're going to have to imagine, because so long as mining bitcoins can earn you money and folding proteins can't, it's pretty clear which one is gonna get done."