De Vries, the researcher, says that even if miners move on to cleaner energy sources, the industry still won’t be sustainable. All it will do is crowd out other consumers of clean energy in order to perform a function that, in his analysis, is entirely pointless.
In September, Ethereum, the second-most-traded cryptocurrency, abandoned the “proof of work” model for generating coins—i.e., mining—for “proof of stake,” a complicated cryptographic process that doesn’t require brute-force calculation. The Ethereum network’s energy usage dropped by 99.95% after the switch, according to the Ethereum Foundation, which oversees the network. This highlighted just how wasteful bitcoin mining is, de Vries says. Rather than looking at what the industry produces, he says, it’s instructive to think of all the failed guesses that the machines make—quintillions of them every second, creating nothing but heat and carbon.
“You have a pretty big industry consuming as much power as a country like Argentina, just for generating random numbers that get thrown out right away … That’s something that you can’t really do sustainably,” he says. “We’re in an energy crisis and a climate crisis, and we’re using fossil fuels to run the world’s biggest random-number generator.”
The measure of the bitcoin mining business might be in what it’s left behind. Turegeldy Turanov has helped build three mines in Ekibastuz as the deputy regional director for BTC.kz, a local data-center company. Now, he’s dismantling them.
At its peak, just one of those facilities on the outskirts of the city ran 10,500 machines, drawing 35 megawatts of power 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In late October, most of its racks were empty. Bare wires hung loose from the walls. On the upper gantries, some of the machines were rusting in place; on the ground floor, others were being packed into cardboard boxes to be shipped back to their owners overseas.
Without the machines running, it was bitter cold inside the BTC.kz mine. Turanov, a broad man in his 20s, wearing a stocking hat and body warmer, sighed deeply. “Jobs are being lost,” he said. “We used to employ 70 people. Now we’re just 30. A lot of effort and work was put into this. It feels as if your child is dying.”
There are still elements of Bitcoin boosterism in evidence in Kazakhstan. One miner said he was gambling on the ruble’s collapsing because of international sanctions on Russia, meaning that the price of imported electricity would fall; another was convinced that the price of a bitcoin will pass $100,000 in 2023, and is holding on until it does. Others, including Enegix’s Turgumbayev, are confident that the market is about to turn because, since its assault on bitcoin mining, the Kazakhstani government has found a new enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies.
In September, President Tokayev fronted a tech conference in Astana, in which he promised “full legal recognition” of crypto assets. This would mean that miners would finally be able to legally convert bitcoin and other cryptocurrency directly to tenge and vice versa, and that crypto could ultimately be used to pay for goods and services in Kazakhstan. The Astana International Financial Center is running a “regulatory sandbox” for crypto companies, allowing exchanges to register, so that they can let consumers buy and sell crypto legally. Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, has set up a local office and is participating in the sandbox.
How do I know if egg freezing is for me?
The tool is currently being trialed in a group of research volunteers and is not yet widely available. But I’m hoping it represents a move toward more transparency and openness about the real costs and benefits of egg freezing. Yes, it is a remarkable technology that can help people become parents. But it might not be the best option for everyone.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
Anna Louie Sussman had her eggs frozen in Italy and Spain because services in New York were too expensive. Luckily, there are specialized couriers ready to take frozen sex cells on international journeys, she wrote.
Michele Harrison was 41 when she froze 21 of her eggs. By the time she wanted to use them, two years later, only one was viable. Although she did have a baby, her case demonstrates that egg freezing is no guarantee of parenthood, wrote Bonnie Rochman.
What happens if someone dies with eggs in storage? Frozen eggs and sperm can still be used to create new life, but it’s tricky to work out who can make the decision, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.
Meanwhile, the race is on to create lab-made eggs and sperm. These cells, which might be made from a person’s blood or skin cells, could potentially solve a lot of fertility problems—should they ever prove safe, as I wrote in a feature for last year’s magazine issue on gender.
Researchers are also working on ways to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab, which could allow them to store and use their eggs without having to pause gender-affirming medical care or go through other potentially distressing procedures, as I wrote last year.
From around the web
The World Health Organization is set to decide whether covid still represents a “public health emergency of international concern.” It will probably decide to keep this status, because of the current outbreak in China. (STAT)
Researchers want to study the brains, genes, and other biological features of incarcerated people to find ways to stop them from reoffending. Others warn that this approach is based on shoddy science and racist ideas. (Undark)
A watermark for chatbots can expose text written by an AI
For example, since OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT was launched in November, students have already started cheating by using it to write essays for them. News website CNET has used ChatGPT to write articles, only to have to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Building the watermarking approach into such systems before they’re released could help address such problems.
In studies, these watermarks have already been used to identify AI-generated text with near certainty. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, were able to spot text created by Meta’s open-source language model, OPT-6.7B, using a detection algorithm they built. The work is described in a paper that’s yet to be peer-reviewed, and the code will be available for free around February 15.
AI language models work by predicting and generating one word at a time. After each word, the watermarking algorithm randomly divides the language model’s vocabulary into words on a “greenlist” and a “redlist” and then prompts the model to choose words on the greenlist.
The more greenlisted words in a passage, the more likely it is that the text was generated by a machine. Text written by a person tends to contain a more random mix of words. For example, for the word “beautiful,” the watermarking algorithm could classify the word “flower” as green and “orchid” as red. The AI model with the watermarking algorithm would be more likely to use the word “flower” than “orchid,” explains Tom Goldstein, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved in the research.
The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs
That’s why the team behind a new decision-making tool hope it will help to clear up some of the misconceptions around the procedure—and give would-be parents a much-needed insight into its real costs, benefits, and potential pitfalls. Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Elon Musk held a surprise meeting with US political leaders
Allegedly in the interest of ensuring Twitter is “fair to both parties.” (Insider $)
+ Kanye West’s presidential campaign advisors have been booted off Twitter. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Twitter’s trust and safety head is Musk’s biggest champion. (Bloomberg $)
2 We’re treating covid like flu now
Annual covid shots are the next logical step. (The Atlantic $)
3 The worst thing about Sam Bankman-Fried’s spell in jail?
Being cut off from the internet. (Forbes $)
+ Most crypto criminals use just five exchanges. (Wired $)
+ Collapsed crypto firmFTX has objected to a new investigation request. (Reuters)
4 Israel’s tech sector is rising up against its government
Tech workers fear its hardline policies will harm startups. (FT $)
5 It’s possible to power the world solely using renewable energy
At least, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson. (The Guardian)
+ Tech bros love the environment these days. (Slate $)
+ How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid. (MIT Technology Review)
6 Generative AI is wildly expensive to run
And that’s why promising startups like OpenAI need to hitch their wagons to the likes of Microsoft. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Microsoft benefits from the ChatGPT hype. (Vox)
+ BuzzFeed is planning to make quizzes supercharged by OpenAI. (WSJ $)
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)
7 It’s hard not to blame self-driving cars for accidents
Even when it’s not technically their fault. (WSJ $)
8 What it’s like to swap Google for TikTok
It’s great for food suggestions and hacks, but hopeless for anything work-related. (Wired $)
+ The platform really wants to stay operational in the US. (Vox)
+ TikTok is mired in an eyelash controversy. (Rolling Stone $)
9 CRISPR gene editing kits are available to buy online
But there’s no guarantee these experiments will actually work. (Motherboard)
+ Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses? (MIT Technology Review)
10 Tech workers are livestreaming their layoffs
It’s a candid window into how these notoriously secretive companies treat their staff. (The Information $)