Research finds bitcoin mining can be improved by 30 percent with approximate computing

ECE News

August Schiess, CSL
3/8/2016 2:59:19 PM

Story Highlights

  • A new bitcoin mining technique could increase profits and allow for larger application of approximate computing.
  • The technique will appear at the Design Automation Conference this June and has received significant attention from the media as well as a mining company to discuss commercializing the technology.
  • Associate Professor Rakesh Kumar said this process can create and increase trust for online transactions as well as increasing profits for miners.

A new technique, developed by a student team led by CSL Associate Professor Rakesh Kumar, could maximize bitcoin mining profits by up to 30 percent, representing an application of a larger body of work in approximate computing.

Bitcoins are the most popular form of cryptocurrency today. A bedrock of the Bitcoin framework is mining, a computationally intensive process that monetarily rewards so-called miners when they verify the trustworthiness of online transactions between two parties. It has become increasingly difficult to profit from Bitcoin mining because of the required computational power, but this new approximation technique will work to increase profits and security for miners.

Rakesh Kumar
Rakesh Kumar

The technique relies on a field called approximate computing, an area of expertise for Kumar. Bitcoin mining is tolerant to errors, meaning that even when approximations are made in the transactions—less reliability but faster processing speeds—the mining is still accurate.  

“Approximate computing allows for reliable computing on unreliable devices, so bitcoin mining is a great application for this work,” said Kumar, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We can use it to improve the security of and create trust in these online transactions, while also increasing profits for miners.”

This work will appear at the Design Automation Conference this June and, in addition to receiving significant attention from the media, there are also ongoing conversations with a mining company to possibly commercialize this technology.

The research was spearheaded by undergraduate student Matthew Vilim as part of a semester-long project on bitcoin mining. As his project evolved, Vilim began to focus specifically on approximation techniques and conducted hardware simulations to test various theories.

Matthew Vilim
Matthew Vilim

“I’m extremely grateful for the time, opportunity, and guidance Dr. Kumar provided me to work on a substantial project such as this while still an undergraduate. It has motivated me to continue my education in graduate school with a focus in computer architecture,” said Vilim, who will begin graduate work in the fall of 2016 at Stanford. “The project provided an opportunity to explore many research areas with which I was only loosely familiar and a chance to study topics that can’t be learned in a class alone.”

Vilim worked with CSL graduate student Henry Duwe, who is generally focused on designing low-power processors, including approximate computing techniques.

Henry Duwe
Henry Duwe

“This work is particularly interesting since it highlights an application whose subcomputations are not obviously amenable to approximate computing,” said Duwe. “Looking forward, this work suggests that future miners are very likely to use approximation in order to keep competitors from getting a significant profit advantage.”

With the possibility of Vilim and Duwe’s efforts entering the marketplace, Kumar attributes the caliber of this research to his students.
“The successful execution of this work is a testament to the quality of students at the University of Illinois, and a good example of the high level of work undergraduate students can conduct,” said Kumar. “Work like this can help students shape and clarify what they’d like to do in the future, both in their research and career.”

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