The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly , a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers. Cryptocurrency advocates are constantly trying to convince non-experts of the advantages of permissionless blockchains, typically by explaining how a decentralized system of consensus-based record-keeping produces an immutable, censorship-resistant ledger.
The culprits, many believe, are application-specific integrated circuits — the expensive, super-fast hashing chips known as ASICs, the engines driving the rigs in giant mining farms. They have so affected the market structure of blockchain networks that they are now the source of much division within their communities, stirring debates over potential forks in the code and exposing the need for blockchains to resolve one of their other core challenges: governance.
Not everyone sees ASICs as a negative. But the sense that ASICs are a danger to the decentralized dream of cryptocurrencies is widespread, which is why creators of different altcoins have made various engineering efforts to stave off the perceived threat. The idea is that this more complicated, multi-faceted workload depletes the singular advantage of ASICs — which are really just very fast one-trick ponies — and renders it worthless for chipmakers to expend capital developing them.
These developments are sowing divisions within blockchain communities. But anyone who has invested in the new products is opposed to these anti-ASIC measures. Developers seem split between those who hold an ideological aversion to ASICs and others who support an expansion in network hashing power and efficiency.
It would seem the ideal time for a particular cryptocurrency community to set up its plans for dealing with ASICs — which almost certainly means planning for a hard fork — occurs well before even the prospect of one of the fast chips being created for their particular coin. Even though one part of the community is so obsessed with decentralization that they fought a block-size increase on those grounds, there are such entrenched stakes in ASIC mining that it would be impossible to launch an ASIC-resistant code upgrade.
Not content to simply build a proof-of-work algorithm that includes tasks favoring GPUs over ASICs, the vertcoin community has also informally agreed upon a kind of pact to fork the code if and when a vertcoin ASIC appears.
So far, the system has worked, perhaps because the mere threat of action by the vertcoin miners is enough to scare off would-be ASIC developers. That threat is backed by the fact that vertcoin has already smoothly forked twice to address issues separate from the ASIC threat.
What I like about the vertcoin solution is that it recognizes effective governance is not just technical. You need that human component. This is due to the fact that GPUs are relatively inexpensive and have uses beyond monolithic cryptocurrency mining. Whether to run a gaming solution or to mine a different coin, GPUs have a life after crypto, and that mitigates the cost of capital expenditure for all. But Vorick countered that this solution is far from perfect.
Eventually, he argued, the economics of GPU mining could become so profitable that it would attract a dominant player, reintroducing third-party risks. At the extreme end would be government intervention, such as anti-trust regulations. But that kind of defeats the purpose of cryptocurrencies.
A better approach would be for communities to develop self-organized models of internal regulation and market structuring. Drawing again from the vertcoin example, miners and users could, say, agree to steer funds into mining equipment built on open-source standards or committed to commodity-like status. Whatever the solution to achieving decentralized mining, it appears to lie in combining on-chain software rules with another set of rules based in off-chain agreements.
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