Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency and worldwide payment system. It is the first decentralized digital currency, as the system works without a central bank or single administrator. The network is peer-to-peer and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes through the use of cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people under the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009.
Bitcoin miners were now caught in the same vicious cycle that real miners confront—except on a much more accelerated timeframe. To maintain their output, miners had to buy more servers, or upgrade to the more powerful servers, but the new calculating power simply boosted the solution difficulty even more quickly. In effect, your mine was becoming outdated as soon as you launched it, and the only hope of moving forward profitably was to adopt a kind of perpetual scale-up: Your existing mine had to be large enough to pay for your next, larger mine. Many miners responded by gathering into vast collectives, pooling their calculating resources and sharing the bitcoin rewards. Others shifted away from mining to hosting facilities for other miners. But whether you were mining or hosting, mining entered “a scaling race,” says Carlson, whose own operations marched steadily from 250 kilowatts to 1.5 megawatts to 5 megawatts. And it was a race: Any delay in getting your machines installed and mining simply meant you’d be coming on line when the coins were even harder to mine.
The Bitcoin mining network difficulty is the measure of how difficult it is to find a new block compared to the easiest it can ever be. It is recalculated every 2016 blocks to a value such that the previous 2016 blocks would have been generated in exactly two weeks had everyone been mining at this difficulty. This will yield, on average, one block every ten minutes.
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.
In Charles Stross' 2013 science fiction novel, Neptune's Brood, the universal interstellar payment system is known as "bitcoin" and operates using cryptography. Stross later blogged that the reference was intentional, saying "I wrote Neptune's Brood in 2011. Bitcoin was obscure back then, and I figured had just enough name recognition to be a useful term for an interstellar currency: it'd clue people in that it was a networked digital currency."
In the meantime, the basin’s miners are at full steam ahead. Salcido says he’ll have 42 megawatts running by the end of the year and 150 megawatts by 2020. Carlson says his next step after his current build-out of 60 megawatts will be “in the hundreds” of megawatts. Over the next five years, his company plans to raise $5 billion in capital to build 2,000 megawatts—two gigawatts—of additional mining capacity. But that won’t all be in the basin, he says. Carlson says he and others will soon be scaling up so rapidly that, for farsighted miners, the Mid-Columbia Basin effectively is already maxed out, in part because the counties simply can’t build out power lines and infrastructure fast enough. “So we have to go site hunting across the US & Canada,” Carlson told me in a text. “I’m on my way to Quebec on Monday.” As in oil or gold, prospectors never stop—they just move on.
Paint mixing is a good way to think about the one-way nature of hash functions, but it doesn’t capture their unpredictability. If you substitute light pink paint for regular pink paint in the example above, the result is still going to be pretty much the same purple, just a little lighter. But with hashes, a slight variation in the input results in a completely different output:
Satoshi Nakamoto is credited with designing Bitcoin. Nakamoto claims to be a man living in Japan born on April 5th, 1975 but there are speculations that he is actually either an individual programmer or group of programmers with a penchant for computer science and cryptography scattered around the United States or Europe. Nakamoto is believed to have created the first blockchain database and have been the first to solve the double spending problem other digital currency failed to. While Bitcoin’s creator is shrouded in mystery, his Wizard of Oz status hasn’t stopped the digital currency from becoming increasingly popular with individuals, businesses, and even governments.
The concept of a virtual currency is still novel and, compared to traditional investments, Bitcoin doesn't have much of a longterm track record or history of credibility to back it. With their increasing use, bitcoins are becoming less experimental every day, of course; still, after eight years, they (like all digital currencies) remain in a development phase, still evolving. "It is pretty much the highest-risk, highest-return investment that you can possibly make,” says Barry Silbert, CEO of Digital Currency Group, which builds and invests in Bitcoin and blockchain companies.
Bitcoin solves the "double spending problem" of electronic currencies (in which digital assets can easily be copied and re-used) through an ingenious combination of cryptography and economic incentives. In electronic fiat currencies, this function is fulfilled by banks, which gives them control over the traditional system. With bitcoin, the integrity of the transactions is maintained by a distributed and open network, owned by no-one.
Ledger’s main competitor in the market space is the original Trezor hardware wallet. One of the key advantages of the Ledger over the Trezor is the freedom to create your own unique passphrases. Both the Ledger and the Trezor require 20 passphrases for recovery and reset purposes; however, the Trezor package sends the user a random list. The Ledger gives the user the freedom to create their own. Additionally, if aesthetics matter to you, the Ledger sports an arguably sleeker design than the Trezor.
But not everyone is going along for the ride. Back in East Wenatchee, Miehe is giving me an impromptu tour of the epicenter of the basin’s boom. We drive out to the industrial park by the regional airport, where the Douglas County Port Authority has created a kind of mining zone. We roll past Carlson’s construction site, which is swarming with equipment and men. Not far away, we can see a cluster of maybe two dozen cargo containers that Salcido has converted into mines, with transformers and cooling systems. Across the highway, near the new, already-tapped out substation, Salcido has another crew working a much larger mine. “A year ago, none of this was here,” Miehe says. “This road wasn’t here.”
As Bitcoin’s adoption and value grew, the justification to produce more powerful, power-efficient and economical devices warranted the significant engineering investments in order to develop the final and current iteration of Bitcoin mining semiconductors. ASICs are super-efficient chips whose hashing power is multiple orders of magnitude greater than the GPUs and FPGAs that came before them. Succinctly, it’s a custom Bitcoin engine capable of securing the network far more effectively than before.
Anyone who can run the mining program on the specially designed hardware can participate in mining. Over the years, many computer hardware manufacturers have designed specialized Bitcoin mining hardware that can process transactions and build blocks much more quickly and efficiently than regular computers, since the faster the hardware can guess at random, the higher its chances of solving the puzzle, therefore mining a block.
Lauren Miehe: The Prospector With a knack for turning old buildings into bitcoin mines, Miehe has helped numerous other outsiders set up mining operations in the basin and now manages sites for other miners. He’s been stunned by the interest in the region since bitcoin prices took off last year. “Right now, everyone is in full-greed mode,” he says. Here, Miehe works at his original mine, a half-megawatt operation a few miles from the Columbia River. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
Is Bitcoin a safe way to store value digitally? Are we wise to save our coins on our computer? It’s true that online wallets are necessarily more dangerous than offline wallets. However, even offline wallets can be breached, meaning that security in the Bitcoin world depends largely on following good practices. Just like you would avoid flailing your bills about in a dangerous place, you should make sure to keep your passwords and keys as safe as possible.
Still, even supporters acknowledge that that glorious future is going to use a lot of electricity. It’s true that many of the more alarming claims—for example, that by 2020, bitcoin mining will consume “as much electricity as the entire world does today,” as the environmental website Grist recently suggested—are ridiculous: Even if the current bitcoin load grew a hundredfold, it would still represent less than 2 percent of total global power consumption. (And for comparison, even the high-end estimates of bitcoin’s total current power consumption are still less than 6 percent of the power consumed by the world’s banking sector.) But the fact remains that bitcoin takes an astonishing amount of power. By one estimate, the power now needed to mine a single coin would run the average household for 10 days.
Nakamoto is estimated to have mined one million bitcoins before disappearing in 2010, when he handed the network alert key and control of the code repository over to Gavin Andresen. Andresen later became lead developer at the Bitcoin Foundation. Andresen then sought to decentralize control. This left opportunity for controversy to develop over the future development path of bitcoin.