Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency, a concept that was discussed in the late 90s. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list. The concept was presented by a person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The real identity of Nakamoto has been a mystery since that time, with various theories on who the individual or group may be.
In the earliest days of Bitcoin, mining was done with CPUs from normal desktop computers. Graphics cards, or graphics processing units (GPUs), are more effective at mining than CPUs and as Bitcoin gained popularity, GPUs became dominant. Eventually, hardware known as an ASIC, which stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, was designed specifically for mining bitcoin. The first ones were released in 2013 and have been improved upon since, with more efficient designs coming to market. Mining is competitive and today can only be done profitably with the latest ASICs. When using CPUs, GPUs, or even the older ASICs, the cost of energy consumption is greater than the revenue generated.
With the Antminers needing to stay below 38 °C, Mongolia is not the ideal location for a mining facility. It had been above 40 °C for several days when I visited in July. And in the winter, it can fall to –20 °C, cold enough for Bitmain to add insulation to the facilities. Dust is a problem as well, which is why the interior of every warehouse I walk through is veiled in a fine fabric filter.
No one was more surprised than the miners themselves. By the end of 2017, even with the rapidly rising difficulty, the per-bitcoin cost for basin miners was around $2,000, producing profit margins similar to those of the early years, only on a vastly larger scale. Marc Bevand, a French-born computer scientist who briefly mined in the basin and is now a tech investor, estimates that, by December, a hypothetical investor who had built a 5-megawatt mine in the basin just four months earlier would’ve recovered the $7 million investment and would now be clearing $140,000 in profit every 24 hours. “Nowadays,” he told me back in December, miners “are literally swimming in cash.”
Several news outlets have asserted that the popularity of bitcoins hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal goods. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that bitcoin's anonymity encourages money laundering and other crimes, "If you open up a hole like bitcoin, then all the nefarious activity will go through that hole, and no government can allow that." He's also said that if "you regulate it so you couldn’t engage in money laundering and all these other [crimes], there will be no demand for Bitcoin. By regulating the abuses, you are going to regulate it out of existence. It exists because of the abuses."
Bitcoin is the world’s first cryptocurrency. It is a purely peer-to-peer electronic cash system that allows online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. The Bitcoin system is the most widely accepted cryptocurrency system at present. However, due to its initial setting, such as block size and block time, its performance is limited to less than 10 transactions per second.
That’s all transactions are—people signing bitcoins (or fractions of bitcoins) over to each other. The ledger tracks the coins, but it does not track people, at least not explicitly. Assuming Bob creates a new address and key for each transaction, the ledger won’t be able to reveal who he is, or which addresses are his, or how many bitcoins he has in all. It’s just a record of money moving between anonymous hands.
“It’s a real testament to Bitmain that they’ve been able to fend off the competition they have fended off. But still, you haven’t seen an Intel and a Nvidia go full hog into this sector, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if they did,” says Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics who compiled a miner survey with the University of Cambridge.