Wednesday, 8 March 2017

This NES Mines Bitcoin

Let's say you want to mine some bitcoins. You could go out and buy some fancy and costly hardware, like most folks do, or you could just repurpose your favourite childhood video game console. 

This is exactly what a guy who goes by the internet handle "gbg" (pronounced "garbage") did. As a challenge to himself, gbg hacked together a Nintendo Entertainment System from 1985 with some modern components and software so that it could run the necessary calculations to get some bitcoin. It's a sight to behold, in all its stupidly inefficient, 8-bit glory. 

Mining bitcoin with an NES was mostly done for fun, and not for profit, it should be noted. Bitcoin mining is essentially a race between powerful computers all over the world to solve a complex math problem. Even four years ago, when gbg pulled off this stunt, bitcoin mining was a tough game to get into due to people with real money on the line beefing up their rigs. An NES built to run Tetris doesn't stand much of a chance in that scenario. 

Read More: How the Hell does Netflix on NES Work?

So, why did gbg do this? "To see if I could," was his answer when I reached him over email, after I learned about his unholy consumer tech golem for the first time through a bitcoin trade blog

Fair enough. 

The whole thing took a week of effort, he told me, but it was a "cheap hobby project" because he already had most of the parts laying around. Now, I should warn you, the following description of how gbg pulled it off might break your brain. 

According to his blog, gbg's setup treats the NES as a computer for the bitcoin hashing algorithm: SHA256. The problem, gbg wrote in a blog, is that SHA256 requires 32-bit operations, but the NES is only 8-bit. To get around this, gbg used a Raspberry Pi to grab bitcoin data from the network and compile it into a ROM with the SHA256 algorithm—basically, a game file. The file was sent to the NES via another external gadget, and the console did the math. 

Next, the console had to communicate to the network when it completed a successful calculation in order to get a reward in precious bitcoins. To do this, gbg set up the NES so that when a calculation was successful, the screen displayed green. When it failed, the screen was red. Gbg pointed a PlayStation Eye camera at the screen and used some open source computer vision software so it could "recognize" the green. When this happened, the mining operation was communicated to the network as a success.

Amazingly, the Rube Goldberg machine of old and new tech worked. But how much money did it make gbg? "Zero," he wrote me in an email. "The likelihood of hitting a block is so very, very small at the hashrate that the NES worked at. So small. So very, very small."

Gbg has moved on since he retrofitted his old NES, and now runs a blog where he tears down hardware bitcoin wallets and their software. He successfully reverse-engineered the popular Trezor bitcoin wallet, and even created his own open source implementation of it, which he called "Dinosaur Hiphop."

He did consider going Dr. Bitcoin Frankenstein on another revered vintage gaming console, however: Sega Dreamcast. But he abandoned the project after drawing up some initial designs. Why?

"Time," he wrote. "I'd like to get back to it, but there's only so many hours in the day."

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