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Intel chases after Bitcoin miners with dedicated chip

Silicon giant thinks there's real money to be made in the web metaverse 3.0 chain hype

Later this year Intel will start selling a chip designed to mine Bitcoin as it rushes into the digital transactions market.

The company says it will ship an energy-efficient accelerator for those cryptocurrency miners; Argo Blockchain, BLOCK (formerly known as Square), and GRIID Infrastructure will be among its earliest users. Specifics on the chip will be detailed at this month's International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC).

"This architecture is implemented on a tiny piece of silicon so that it has minimal impact to the supply of current products," Intel's Raja Koduri said in a letter posted on Friday.

The comment is a slight jab at the shortage of graphics processors, with crypto miners scalping up available supplies at inflated prices to boost mining activity. AMD and Nvidia have both tried to reduce GPU hoarding by miners, with software locks on some cards to slow mining activity and dedicated hardware for digicash generators that should leave regular kit available for other customers

Koduri's letter, which seems to have actually been written by some marketing person, is loaded with exhausting buzzwords like "Web 3.0," "metaverse," "blockchain," and "Moore’s Law is also enabling us to democratize access to this enormous pool of processing power." But Intel seems serious about this, and is looking to cash in on the opportunity provided by blockchain, which is expected to be the base for economic activity in the metaverse.

Companies that include Microsoft and Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, have placed multi-billion dollar bets on the metaverse, with games like Fortnite and Minecraft being early examples of success. But then there are also metaverse have-beens like Second Life.

Koduri said more computing would be needed to drive the metaverse infrastructure. Intel has created a Custom Compute Group within Intel's Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics business unit to fill that gap.

“The objective of this team is to build custom silicon platforms optimized for customers' workloads, including blockchain and other custom accelerated supercomputing opportunities at the edge,” Koduri wrote.

Reports last month suggested that Intel would be showing off a Bitcoin mining ASIC dubbed "Bonanza Mine" at the ISSCC that can accelerate in hardware the SHA-256 algorithm used in Bitcoin mining. Koduri has now shared additional details on the chip.

"We expect that our circuit innovations will deliver a blockchain accelerator that has over 1000x better performance per watt than mainstream GPUs for SHA-256 based mining," Koduri wrote.

Blockchain enables cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, but is also being used to record and track transactions of assets in verticals like manufacturing and real estate. Intel may be trying to solve an energy-efficiency problem plaguing crypto mining hardware, but a short-term view to cash in on the opportunity may backfire for the company, like it has before with mobile devices.

The hardware development for metaverse is still in its early stages, and focused more on look and feel such as graphics interfaces and computer vision, the communications infrastructure such as edge processing, and the economics such as digital currency and advertising.

Nvidia and Intel have talked about using GPUs and accelerators to power graphics and artificial intelligence applications like natural language processing. Samsung and Inspur in November introduced an all-flash PoseidonV2 storage server with Intel’s Sapphire Rapids chip, which could be tweaked for the metaverse at the Open Compute Project conference last year.

On the other hand, smaller chip companies like Imagination Technologies are being cautious, as the hardware requirements for the metaverse aren’t clear yet. ®

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