I have an issue with bitcoin. Well, a few issues. It’s bad for the environment, it’s an unstable currency, blah blah, etc. Charles Stross covered most of my complaints. I have one in specific that really bugs me, though: All that computing power, and that carbon footprint, is just being applied to generating more bitcoin.
Well, duh, of course, what else would it be used for? Well, when I first heard about bitcoin, I didn’t quite get how it worked. I thought that the bitcoin mining process essentially loaned out your computer’s processing power to various networks that needed it, giving you bitcoin in exchange for that. I pretty quickly realized I was wrong, though, and that the mining process didn’t do anything but, well, mine. After a number of conversations and a good bit of thought, I’ve come up with an idea for a slightly more interesting and useful form of cryptocurrency: SETI@home Coin. (Note, not my original idea. I did come up with it on my own, but many others have come up with it separately before me. It happens.)
SETI@home is one of the first distributed computing projects for research purposes. Essentially, you’re loaning your computer’s idle processing power to the Search For ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, so they can process all the data they receive from radio telescopes. (Largely the Arecibo Observatory.)
So it’s a pretty good cause. My idea, essentially: Establish a cryptocurrency generated by SETI@home. There are already competitive indexes for processing power contributed to the project, this wouldn’t be an enormous stretch. It could even help with some of SETI and Arecibo’s funding issues by giving them a small cut of the coins generated, and allowing for SETI@home coin donations. The currency would be more stable, since unlike Bitcoin, SETI@home’s calculations do not get progressively more difficult. It would instead be awarded by percent of work done, or awarded whenever some sort of calculation checkpoint is achieved. It would need some oversight to prevent it from inflating rapidly, but that wouldn’t be a colossal task.
Where it starts getting really interesting is outside influences on the currency. A new radio telescope, a solar flare messing with radio telescopes, government funding issues, new scientific findings: These would all have large influences on SETI@home coin.(Maybe I should just call it SETIcoin?) What would be extremely interesting, though, is what would happen if SETI actually did pick up a signal. Interest in SETI and SETI@home would skyrocket, to say the least. By association, SETI@home coin would be pulled farther into the spotlight as well. My gut instinct is that it would skyrocket in price, making anyone invested in it very, very happy.
Even though it would be cool, though, it isn’t going to happen. First: SETI and Arecibo do receive government funding, and I don’t think they’d take a whole new currency generated by someone they fund well. …Yeah, no. Second, it kinda violates the spirit of SETI@home. It’s a project dedicated to science for science’s sake. Monetizing it seems… cheap. Third, if the performance of bitcoin is any indicator, there WILL end up being some sort of ridiculous scandal, or giant scam, or something else that tarnishes the project, and SETI@home by association. Fourth, the custom-built bitcoin mining hardware that people use nowadays is extremely specialized, and won’t actually work very well for a lot of scientific calculations. So this is more of a thought experiment than anything.
There are people attempting to set up something similar, though. Essentially, some individuals and groups have been talking about setting up a distributed computing network with a free client to join it, then renting out its computing power to researchers. Most of these projects are still linked to bitcoin, from what I can tell.
Maybe we will see one of them, maybe we won’t. Regardless, though, I highly recommend that you check out SETI and SETI@home.