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article imageShortage of GPUs used in cryptocoin mining hinders research

By Ken Hanly     Feb 18, 2018 in Technology
Berkeley - Aaron Parsons an associate professor of Astronomy at the University of California Berkeley is using an array of radio telescopes to help him discover the first stars that formed in the universe about 13 billion years ago.
Aaron Parsons
Aaron Parsons is both an Associate Professor of Astronomy and Head Graduate Advisor at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. His specialties are radio astronomy instrumentation, cosmic reionization, digital signal processing, experimental cosmology, formation and evolution of large-scale cosmic structure.
Parsons' work with radio telescopes
Parsons' radio telescopes are made up of hundreds of antennas which detect radio emissions that are throughout the cosmos. All the data received needs to processed by a supercomputer to create a map of the sky. This map can aid Parsons in spotting the earliest stars. Ultimately this will help understand how the universe changed from plasma into galaxies and planets.
Parsons' radio telescope is called the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) with hundreds of antennas that are located in South Africa. He is currently trying to upgrade the system.
The world's largest radio telescopes are shown on the appended video.
General Processing Units (GPUs)
In a computer you have a central processing unit or CPU and also a general processing unit(GPU) that processes data from video and images. GPUs are also equipped with a large number of Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU), which are responsible for performing mathematical computations. These ALUs, allow the GPU to make many more calculations than the CPU, leading to improved output for the crypto mining process.
The mining process by solving complex mathematical problems allows the miner to add blocks to the blockchain, and rewards him with coins, while verifying the transactions as described in the appended video. As the problems become more complex the miners need more GPU's to solve them.
Mining companies roam the globe looking for locations with cheap power and other advantages. As a recent Digital Journal article reports Iceland is regarded as a paradise for miners with ample cheap power and cool temperatures.
Cryptocoin mining uses huge amounts of power. Bitcoin mining alone is said to use as much power as the whole of the Republic of Ireland. In Iceland mining consumes as much power as all Icelandic households.
Cost rise and shortage of GPUs
Parsons is attempting to upgrade his system to a total of 350 antennas. However, he found the price of the GPUs he uses has gone from $500 dollars to about $1,000 each. This will cost him about $32,000 extra money that he needs to hire graduate students.
Parsons said: “I kind of rolled my eyes a little bit. I usually think of cryptocurrency as some kind of peripheral thing, and I was surprised and a bit annoyed to discover that it’s impacting the bottom line of our telescope.”
The demand for GPUs is so great that chipmakers such as AMD and Nividia have been unable to keep up with demand. Even PC gamers are feeling the effects as are other scientists.
Negative consequences for Parsons
Given financial constraints Parsons might find it necessary to build a smaller telescope but it might not be able to detect faint signals that the large telescope could. This could hinder his research.
Jack Hickish who works with Parsons said that with the shortage it is virtually impossible to buy the GPUs in bulk and save money so that it becomes more difficult to buy them in the quantities that Parsons needs. Hickish said: “It’s really difficult to buy them in the quantity we want. The vendors we’ve spoken to are hesitant to promise us 40, and if I can get that availability, I can get a quote. But [if] you order a week from now, you have to quote again because they might be gone.”
If the GPUs remain expensive and difficult to buy research with radio telescopes will be much less effective and will be held back until more GPUs become available.
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