Everyday thousands of volunteers turn the power of their computers over to the SETI@home project in hopes of finding aliens among the stars. SETI@home—short for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home”—is an experiment that uses people’s computers to increase the project’s processing power and analyze more radio signals from outer space.
The UC Berkeley-based SETI project only relies on volunteers for a portion of its computing power, however, and has its own computing installations at several telescopes. But the project team ran into problems recently when it tried to expand its operations by adding the latest and most powerful computers to two observatories. The team discovered, Berkeley SETI Research Center chief scientist Dan Werthimer told the BBC, that it couldn’t find the key computer component it needed: graphics processing units (GPUs).
That’s probably thanks to cryptocurrency miners. The same cards that make PC games look amazing and can crunch alien radio signal data can also “mine” (or generate) digital coins like Ethereum and Zcash, so cryptocurrency miners are buying them in bulk and leaving few behind for anyone else.
Searching the stars is intense work that “uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space.” Analyzing all of the data from these telescopes uses a lot of computing power. "We'd like to use the latest GPUs and we can't get 'em," Dan Werthimer, chief scientist of SETI, told the BBC. “That's limiting our search for extraterrestrials.”
Manufacturers such as Nvidia are struggling to keep up with demand for graphics cards. It recently told investors it would rise to meet its manufacturing challenge while focusing on its core market—gamers. It even suggested vendors limit purchases of graphics cards from individual buyers in an effort to stop miners from buying up all the cards.
“This is a new problem, it's only happened on orders we've been trying to make in the last couple of months,” Werthimer told the BBC. “We've got the money, we've contacted the vendors, and they say, 'we just don't have them'”
One scientist at the SETI Institute—an organization founded by Carl Sagan unrelated to UC Berkeley’s SETI project—think this GPU shortage is just a minor dip in the long arc of rising computer processing power. Computers will get faster and, eventually, we’ll find aliens if they’re there to find.
“I've bet everyone a cup of Starbucks that we might find ET within two dozen years,” Seth Shostak, fellow at the SETI Institute, told me in an email. But then, he isn’t using GPUs to conduct the search. “Using GPUs for SETI is certainly something we’ve been investigating for a long time," he said. "When it comes to finding the aliens, the more computer power you have, the quicker you can do the search. It’s like looking for buried treasure on a South Pacific island … if you can replace a teaspoon with a shovel, you might find it a lot quicker!”
At the moment, it seems that cryptocurrency miners are buying up all the shovels.
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