One of the biggest topics in cryptocurrency is mining. There’s debate if it’s good or bad, useless or revolutionary, but we’re not going to get into that today.
Instead we want to talk about ASICs, or Application Specific Integrated Circuits, and how they are related to cryptocurrency mining. Without getting into a lot of detail, mining is used to secure the network by perform a lot of mathematical guessing. This guessing ability, or hashing power, is a measure of a computer’s capability to make a certain number of guesses per second. The more guesses per second, the higher the hashing power. Mining is more or less a lottery to correctly guess the perfect hash for each block. Think of the infinite monkey theorem: Given an infinite length of time, a monkey punching at random on a typewriter would almost surely type out all of Shakespeare’s plays. The more monkeys we have, the more likely it will happen sooner rather than later.
In the same way, the more hashing power we have, on average the more likely we are to make money from mining. That’s why a mining farm made up of thousands of computers mining in rural China where the electricity is cheap is going to be many times more profitable than a single computer running in the middle of NYC. Ok, that’s obvious, but it’s not just the number of computers affecting the total hashing power, it’s the type of computers. Or, more specifically, the hardware being used to mine. When Bitcoin first started, it was mined using CPUs, or the central processing unit of your computer. This is good, but because a CPU is so multifaceted and tasked with doing many things to keep the computer running, it’s not the best miner. So, mining shifted to GPUs, or graphical processing units. This is much better because GPUs are more efficient at computing hashes given they can be tasked more specifically. They don’t have to worry about much more than being a miner, which makes them better suited for maximizing hashing power. If you’re a computer gamer, you’d know that the prices of graphics cards have skyrocketed in the past months due to the rise in popularity of cryptocurrency mining. What’s also great about GPU mining is that it’s much more profitable due to the sheer scale of what you can do with it.
Where only one CPU can be used for a single CPU miner, you can have 8 graphics cards all mining on one computer! This makes the overhead cost of hardware more committed to buying better graphics cards than worrying about the other components of the computer. But what if you could buy an all-in-one solution that was far superior to mining with CPUs or GPUs? Where CPUs and GPUs have to be good at many different things, this device would have one single purpose: to mine cryptocurrency as fast as possible.
This is what an ASIC is. It is built as the final evolution in the pursuit of faster hashing power. And it naturally splits the crypto community in two. After all, if an ASIC is only produced by a single company, that company can charge what they want for it. When only those who can afford the ludicrous price acquire them, they then make CPU and GPU miners obsolete. It then becomes an arms race of whoever has the most ASICs. If there’s a new version of the ASIC or the coin it’s designed to mine changes, the older ASIC becomes essentially worthless. This is in stark contrast to GPUs or CPUs, which can mine many different cryptocurrencies and have high resale value.
The reason we’re discussing ASICs is that two prominent cryptocurrencies that were GPU dominated, Ethereum and Monero, just had ASICs developed for them. This would mean that miners currently using GPUs to mine these coins will now be severely out-competed by ASIC miners.
Thankfully, both development teams behind these coin in particular have publicly stated that they will “hard-fork” to alter their coin in order to prevent any developed ASICs from working.
While it solves today’s issues, it’s certainly concerning that nearly every major cryptocurrency mining algorithm has had an ASIC developed for it. It could be that mining becomes a purely ASIC dominated space, as it’s already looking like. We don’t like this possibility as ASICs are typically bought up in large batches by those who have the means, meaning the networks they mine on are now much more centralized.
Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch the cryptocurrency community evolve as ASICs become more dominant while more mainstream and institutional investors enter the space.