How Bitcoins And Other Cryptocurrencies Have Illuminated Collaborative Computational Tasks

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Cryptocurrencies are not really a very new thing. They have been around in various forms now for several years, but have gained popularity with Bitcoins which were the first cryptocurrencies to be traded back in 2009. Rather than start a post about that, I wanted to look at a different point that has been trending over the last few months that I feel has been missed in the whirlwind of Bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. This point is a mindset of hive mind computing, problem solving, crypto and hash cracking, etc. Basically it’s operations carried out through collaborative computing power on the scale of quantum computing to produce a result that is tangible or rewarding.

The underlying principle of a cryptocurrency is basically a digital currency centered around a digital medium that is structured in a way to utilize cryptology techniques to make the currency secure and thus a potentially more viable exchange unit. Bitcoins are such a cryptocurrency. They are generated as a reward for cracking hashed computer values by contributing computing power to a larger pool of computers working to solve complex mathematical equations and algorithms. That’s where things get interesting. Those first getting into Bitcoins just set it up on their home PC and would operate on their own using their PC processors or GPU’s. However, as miners started to discover they could set up a mining “pool” to compound their efforts and thus increase the payout, many took to a pool mining or distributed computing mindset.

This lending of your computing power to a pool costs only a few cents of electricity, an internet connection and time per person.  When your computer is not in use by you it can be easily tasked with solving these problems and then you get a reward out of it.  Some of you may be familiar with programs that allow the donation of computing power towards some sort of collaborative goal. For example, in a step to make this mindset more accessible a few years ago Playstation had a built in functionality for it in their PS3 consoles where you could contribute your Playstation’s computing power when you weren’t rocking out the latest GTA or Left4Dead to a program called Folding@Home that was designed by Stanford University that added your Playstation’s computing power to a larger network of machines working to perform multiple calculations to fold proteins in a computer modelled simulation at incredible speeds to better learn about specific diseases and possible cures.  Bitcoin mining works similarly. The primary difference is the end goal in Bitcoin mining is to crack specific hashes and algorithms and those that participate are rewarded with a set amount of Bitcoins split among the miners. Each of those coins are currently going for around $436 per BTC but it now would take several weeks if not months for someone to mine a full Bitcoin on their own.  Folding@Home’s reward was perhaps a little less tangible, as it was knowing you were contributing to the advancement of humanity as it sought out information and potential cures for a specific disease or further information. There was that sense of helping out your fellow man and the general mindset of, “Hey, why not? I’m not using it right now.”  I set out to find more of these types of projects and it turns out there are a huge amount of them now doing everything from predicting the weather to simulating collisions and pouring through data of the Large Hadron Collider or estimating the effects of social networking and its interactions on society. There are several other tasks requiring huge computing resources that are accomplished by this style of computing and for a list of some you can check out “Distributed Computing Projects” through your favorite search engine.

Personally, I loved Folding@Home and I generally enjoy collaborative efforts such as these and plan to look into more in the future. I think we will see a lot more of these coming in the near future and especially if people are rewarded for “donating” their machine to a worthy cause, whether it’s experimenting with Bitcoins, solving complex mathematical models or working towards a prize like the recent iOS game Curiousity that promises a reward at the end of the journey. It’s a fun easy way to be engaged with a large group of people who you have never and may never meet towards a specific goal and then sharing in the knowledge and “riches” that follow. What a fun treasure hunt mentality.  It’s a pretty brilliant model and potentially a good marketing tool as well.  Not only are you individually contributing your old computer’s computing prowess to a worthy cause, instead of letting it sit and collect dust, but perhaps you get a prize and/or sense of accomplishment out of the whole thing as well.