article Fall 2016

Gridcoin and BOINC: ‘Crowdsourcing’ Scientific Discovery

By Brandon Grill

Scientific advancement relies on numerous resources, many of which are hard to come by. Skilled faculty, equipment funding, and adequate research assistants are all needed in order to take a proposal and turn it into a discovery. Often overlooked, but increasing in demand, is the need for computational power. Whether in astronomy, physics, math, or computer science, research often collects massive amounts of data without efficient processing power to properly interpret it. A project by the University of California at Berkeley, led by David Anderson, was developed to alleviate some of the processing needs of their scientists by soliciting support from the global community.

BOINC, standing for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, is a software and network that links hundreds of thousands of personal computers together to process data collected by research teams. Originally developed for use with SETI@home, a similar project used to help process astronomical data, BOINC has since been expanded for use with projects in a variety of fields. With BOINC, even those without a background in research or the means to financially support projects are able to provide partial use of their computers to enable scientific progress.

While BOINC is supported by many, there is little incentive to help the network other than an altruistic desire to further research. In fact, running a computer processor to its capacity uses significantly more electricity than when it is idle. This means that the average BOINC supporter must pay to support their projects in the form of their utility bill. Rob Halford, a computer scientist interested in the BOINC system, devised a way to reward contributors to the BOINC network. He developed a cryptocurrency called Gridcoin as a way to reward those who offer their resources to scientists.

Much like Bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency currently in existence, Gridcoin is a decentralized currency able to be transferred with ease, much like physical cash. Gridcoin is comparatively a minor competitor as of now, but shows signs of increasing in popularity and value. Just like Bitcoin, Gridcoin has inherent value due to its limited supply. Gridcoin can be bought and sold in exchange for government-backed currencies such as the United States Dollar, or it can be traded on exchanges for Bitcoin and other smaller cryptocurrencies. A key difference between the two coins lies within the way they are created. Bitcoin is distributed evenly to “miners” (those who volunteer their hardware) based upon how many arbitrary computations they perform. Any computer has potential to be a miner as long as it runs the specific Bitcoin software; by performing these computations, the Bitcoin network knows to allow creation of new coins, much in the way the Federal Reserve orders creation of dollars. Mining Bitcoin is purely a method of distributing the coins fairly, and has an overall negative effect on the environment due to the massive amounts of energy consumed. Gridcoin, on the other hand, uses virtually all of the processing power used in mining to support research projects. Since this computer processing would likely have had to be done eventually anyway, Gridcoin has a very small net carbon footprint in comparison to Bitcoin.

Tobias Becke, a German Energy and Environmental Engineer and Community Manager for Gridcoin, is excited about the prospect of a cryptocurrency being used to advance science. Like creator Rob Halford, Becke is bothered by the amount of wasted energy and resources used in the mining of Bitcoin. He still, however, is very much invested in the growth of cryptocurrencies as a means of decentralizing and digitizing the monetary system. He started by asking the question, “What could we do with our old computing hardware?” It seemed to him a waste to simply dispose of old computers when there are so many research teams that desperately need help processing their data.

Becke believes that Gridcoin will rise to be one of the top used cryptocurrencies because of its social and moral advantages over Bitcoin. It is not just a prediction, but also a hope of his to see Gridcoin being more widely adopted. As more people become involved in the mining of Gridcoin, scientific progress will speed up as more of the researchers’ resources can be focused away from the need to process their data. Many data heavy projects will be encouraged to start when the need for computer resources becomes less of an issue. Perhaps most importantly, people around the world will have more of a part in the progress of research. More of humanity will be involved in its own advancement. A main goal of Becke’s is “to increase research rates globally many times over,” using Gridcoin as an incentive.

Gridcoin, of course, still has many hurdles to pass. There are thousands of cryptocurrencies all trying to wrestle control of the market out of the hands of Bitcoin; Gridcoin often times fades into a simple “GRC” stock-like ticker on an online investment exchange. Becke believes that Gridcoin is still the most versatile research-based coin in the market, and has high hopes regardless of how many competitors exist. “I want to believe that GRC will continue growing. Someone bought a pizza for 10,000 Bitcoins just five years ago. I believe we are at that point with Gridcoin.” Considering that 10,000 Bitcoins are now worth $2.5 million, Becke sets his goals high. The total value of all Bitcoin is about $3.6 billion at this point, while Gridcoin is worth just under $1.5 million. Considering that any coin can gain unprecedented momentum in such a short period of time, he might just be right, and researchers around the world should rejoice in this optimism.

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