Cryptocurrencies have made big waves in the news lately. Touted as alternative investments to hedge against inflation, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin have seen massive bumps in valuation over the last few years. As cryptocurrencies have become more popular, they’ve brought blockchain into the spotlight along with them—an example of biomimicry.
The basic element in a blockchain is a block. No surprise there. In the case of Bitcoin, blocks are represented by Bitcoins. Blocks are filled with information until they can’t hold anymore. Once they’re filled up, a new block is created. Each new block has the identifying information of the block before it, like a massive game of virtual telephone. Each computer that participates in the process of adding blocks to the blockchain has a copy of the entire blockchain stored as opposed to having one central copy. This is the decentralized aspect of blockchain.
That’s all fairly simple, but here’s where things get interesting. In order for new blocks to be generated, computers have to solve complex mathematical equations. This process takes time, acting as prevention from chain tampering. Creating these computer generated blocks is the process of mining.
Biomimicry in Technology
Tech companies are just beginning to figure out what industrial designers have known for decades: progress will come through effective mimicry of natural processes. Using the natural world to inform design is called biomimicry. Blockchains are just one example of biomimicry, but there will be many more in the future.
While all of this might sound complex, it’s actually no different from what humans are already accustomed to. Blockchains mimic natural processes. Think of each computer as a person. While blockchains are comprised of blocks of information, brains are made up of experiences and knowledge. We “mine” that information through things like school, reading, or listening to podcasts. Because each person has their own brain, all of these experiences are disseminated. Information can be shared and compared through dialogue and thought leadership, but not directly changed.
Bitcoin, although exhaustive, is not infinite. There’s a set supply of them that will eventually be depleted. In much the same way that the production of neurons in the brain slows with age, mining of Bitcoin also slows as the blockchain becomes more mature. This is why constant learning is important not only for our brain, but for blockchains too. In the early days of Bitcoin, mining was done in the background of a laptop. Now, dedicated mining companies spend thousands of dollars on purpose-built mining computers.
Blockchain isn’t the only technology biomimicry has touched, nor is it the only example of biomimicry. Quantum computing has also made leaps in the last few years. Traditional computers rely upon bits that are binary. The bits are either 0 or 1. A quantum computer on the other hand uses qubits. Instead of being a binary option, qubits are able to be of nonbinary value between 0 and 1. In a sense they’re every value and no value simultaneously.
That may sound strange. Think of it like this: traditional computers have rows of coins that are heads or tails. Quantum computers have rows of coins that are spinning on their sides. Because of their fluidity, quantum computers are the closest we’ve gotten to creating a human brain from scratch. Human brains do not function on a binary, so the next generation of computers shouldn’t either.
Like brains, quantum computers require specific conditions to operate effecively. The chips they run on have to be kept at barely a degree above absolute zero, colder than interstellar space at -460o Fahrenheit. Though the hurdles are many, the payoff will be well worth it. In 2019 Google’s quantum computer, Sycamore, completed an equation in 200 seconds that would take the world’s fastest traditional computer approximately 10,000 years to complete.
The last milestone in computing prior to Sycamore was when IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996. Some design is iterative. Designs improve upon the basics of previous designs. Other designs totally shatter all prior notions. In the same way a lightbulb is not a better candle, quantum computers are not a better traditional computer. New roads are being paved with the best roadmap we have: the brain.
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