Mine for the Cure

By August 15, 2014Bitcoin Business
Click here to view original web page at bitcoinmagazine.com

I’ve long been interested in ways to use cryptocurrency mining to solve practical problems; proof-of-work’s waste of energy is its biggest problem, the solution to which could be the final nail in fiat’s coffin. While Gridcoin showed some promise, it failed to take off, and the search for a scientific coin capable of taking us to the moon continues. Many seemed to criticize its centralized nature–a central authority vets which scientific programs users can participate in, and validates their efforts–and maintaining proper security while dedicating more resources to useful work has proven difficult.

The problem with security is that proof-of-work miners need an algorithm where the solution can be verified with virtually no effort, and in an objective way. The algorithms used by BOINC (Gridcoin’s central authority) fail to meet these conditions. Real scientific problems are more intricate than repetitive hashing functions, but the scientists behind non-profit research projects are as resourceful as they are underfunded, and a new team has stepped up to the plate.

CureCoin is based on Folding@home, a product of Stanford University’s Pande Lab. It eclipses Gridcoin’s BOINC with over 45 petaFLOPS of processing power, making it the fastest computer network in the world thanks to countless volunteers. Pande Lab uses this computational power to simulate the folding of proteins, the work horses that carry out the instructions encoded in your DNA. They carry out a vast array of functions, such as transporting chemicals throughout the body, replicating DNA, and behaving as enzymes–catalysts that speed up metabolic reactions in the body when and where it needs energy.

Protein folding (or misfolding) is therefore a critical component of most diseases. Viruses like AIDS are essentially rogue genetic material, infecting a host with new instructions for proteins that spread the virus at whatever cost. Even without the influence of such contagions, the body’s proteins can misfold on their own, leading to a host of problems: excessive DNA replication can lead to cancerous growth, and the inability to provide nutrients or energy where needed is a suspected contributor to many mental illnesses. Understanding what influences protein misfolding (and how) is vital to curing many of these maladies.

Altruism and intellectual curiosity have worked wonders for Stanford’s program, but with CureCoin they hope to provide hard incentives to contribution. Not unlike how SolarCoin subsidizes solar energy production, CureCoin subsidizes medical research contributions: it saves a portion of the minted block rewards for redistribution to users based on how much folding they did. This differs from the system utilized by Gridcoin, which just increases or decreases a block’s reward depending upon the miner’s BOINC contribution. If there is ever an excess of either folders or miners, the other becomes relatively more profitable, tying the strength of both networks to the value of CureCoin.

For mining itself, CureCoin utilizes a hybrid proof-of-work/proof-of-stake system. Unlike other hybrid systems like BlueCoin’s, however, CureCoin shies away from newer scrypt algorithms like X11, opting to stick with the tried-and-true SHA256 (as in Bitcoin). They want to encourage people to use consumer hardware like home computers for folding proteins, leaving mining to ASIC rigs with little utility for folding. To prevent a large mining operation from launching a 51% attack on the network, some blocks are also “minted” in the proof-of-stake system, which they have basically borrowed from PeerCoin.

This set-up has many advantages over competitors like GridCoin. Since block rewards do not vary depending upon how much science is being done (protein folders always get 20% of the block rewards), it’s possible there will be more stability in value. Stanford is a renowned university working with partners like Sony and Nvidia, and their Folding@home network is the most established of its kind. Although CureCoin’s reliance on the SHA256 hash algorithm allows the use of specialized mining equipment, its hybrid use of proof-of-stake mitigates the security risks.

Unfortunately, the project is still somewhat centralized: CureCoin is completely open source, but parts of Folding@home are not. All protein folding is validated by Pande Lab, and while the developers of CureCoin operate independently, they maintain control over if and when new scientific projects will be added to the network. Contributions to those projects are likely to be validated by central authorities, as well, but if you’re willing to trust the scientific community and its benefactors, CureCoin succeeds in its mission. At the very least, those of you who do or will fold proteins for altruistic reasons may as well claim some reward on the side.

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