Two years ago, a Chinese chip-design expert named Micree Zhan was reading China’s seminal science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, while wrestling with how to create a new processor. He had already designed custom chips for the company he co-founded, Bitmain, that had made it into the world’s leading bitcoin miner, allowing it to dominate the new, hyper-competitive industry of unearthing bitcoins. Now he needed a chip that could launch Bitmain onto a new trajectory, one that would help it master a world-altering technology called deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence.
While performing his nightly meditation, a practice he has kept up for nearly a decade, it suddenly came to Zhan. “It was late at night, and something inspired me—Sophon!” he recalls. A sophon is a fictional proton-sized supercomputer from The Three-Body Problem that is sent by an alien civilization to halt scientific progress on Earth. It’s capable of causing strange phenomena—such as inscribing flashing words on the retinas of elite scientists. The aliens use it to take over Earth when their own planet is destroyed by the chaotic gravitational forces of its three suns.
Bitmain’s newest product, the Sophon, may or may not take over deep learning. But by giving it such a name Zhan and his Bitmain co-founder, Jihan Wu, have signaled to the world their intentions. The Sophon unit will include Bitmain’s first piece of bespoke silicon for a revolutionary AI technology. If things go to plan, thousands of Bitmain Sophon units soon could be training neural networks in vast data centers around the world.
Bitmain could pull it off, says Michael Bedford Taylor, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the bitcoin mining industry and its specialized chips. Taylor says these types of chips, called application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, that are designed to perform a single function extremely efficiently could create the next wave of distributed computing (pdf). “This will invigorate the hardware field,” he says. “We are about to see the emergence of all kinds of ASICs clouds, and the bitcoin hardware community has demonstrated that under the right conditions this can happen rapidly as a grassroots effort.”
China’s shadowy colossus
To grasp how a Beijing startup is poised to challenge the likes of Google, Nvidia, and AMD in the deep learning arms race, it’s essential to understand Bitmain’s pivotal role in the $70 billion bitcoin economy. Incorporated in Hong Kong as Bitmain Technologies Ltd, Bitmain’s controlling shareholder is a trust registered in the Cayman islands.
The company is a marvel of vertical integration. Bitmain designs the silicon that goes into its bitcoin mining rigs, assembles the machines, then sells them to customers around the world. It also operates the machines for its own account, runs vast bitcoin mines that it rents out on contract to others, and, finally, manages several of the world’s largest mining “pools”—agglomerations of processing power so huge that they greatly improve the odds of successfully mining a bitcoin block.
Bitmain may now be the most influential company in the bitcoin economy by virtue of the sheer amount of processing power, or hash rate, that it controls. Its mining pools, Antpool and BTC.com, account for 28.9% of all the processing power on the global bitcoin network.
Hash rate is critical because bitcoin is in the midst of a messy “civil war.” Controlling chunks of hash rate provides miners with a public vote on the bewildering array of technical proposals dictating bitcoin’s future. At the crux of the technical debate: How to increase the number of transactions the bitcoin network can handle at any given time. The recent split of bitcoin into bitcoin and bitcoin-cash illustrated one way to do this.
Bitcoin mining is the process of checking and adding new transactions to bitcoin’s immutable ledger—its blockchain. Miners must compete with one another to be the first to find a new block. In return for performing this work, which requires massive processing power and incurs hefty electricity costs, miners are rewarded with a certain number of bitcoins for each block they add to the blockchain. Currently, that’s 12.5 bitcoins per block, and a new block is found roughly every 10 minutes. At the current bitcoin price of about $4,000, that’s $50,000 up for grabs every 10 minutes, or $7.2 million a day.
Controversy and criticism over blockchain
Wu, the business brains behind Bitmain, is a polarizing figure in the bitcoin world. He has been a vocal and vociferous proponent of one particular technical approach to increase bitcoin’s transaction capacity, one that would increase the size of bitcoin’s blocks by eliminating the 1 megabyte limit imposed by the bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitmain is among the signatories of the so-called “New York Agreement,” which calls for doubling the block size under the Segwit2x proposal. Some see this as technically risky, and philosophically fraught because it concentrates power in the hands of miners—like Bitmain. “In France, nobody likes him at all. He is despised,” said Sosthène, the pseudonym of a Parisian bitcoiner I met in Beijing.
Critics of Bitmain suspect that Wu was behind the recent, somewhat related split of bitcoin called the bitcoin-cash hard fork. That split was supported by a miner in Shenzhen named ViaBTC—which happened to be a company that Bitmain has invested in. Wu denies he was behind the split and Bitmain has publicly said it’s neutral on the matter. “If we had such an influence,” he laughs, an earlier scaling proposal called Bitcoin Unlimited, which he and other prominent figures had backed, “would have already been activated.”
Jack Liao, a Shenzhen-based bitcoin miner who has clashed with Bitmain, says Wu is trying to dominate the bitcoin economy and shape it for his own ends. “He wants to control the code, he wants to control the environment,” Liao says. “Then he can design the entire bitcoin ecosystem.” Liao has clashed with Wu on social media in China, claiming that he’s prepared to take legal action against Wu for bad-mouthing his company, Lightning Asic.
Wu, 31 years old, spars with his critics on Twitter, where he says he is inundated by professional trolls. He famously published an expletive-laden tweet in 2016 in response to users who he believed were trolling him during one debate about bitcoin’s future. It was promptly turned into memes and held up as evidence that Wu was unqualified to lead the conversation about influencing the future of a protocol worth $70 billion.
Wu says he regrets that particular Twitter outburst. “If I had a time machine I would not have posted that,” he says. Fixing his image problem is partly why we’ve been invited to Beijing to meet him—he rarely grants interviews—and why we were invited to visit his firm’s bitcoin mine in Inner Mongolia the day following our meeting.
Another split for bitcoin is looming in November, when the community must again decide if it will raise the block size limit. Wu, who favors the new split, says such schisms shouldn’t be avoided. “The core developers don’t own bitcoin as a whole,” he says. “Maybe they own the bitcoin-core software project, but bitcoin is not software, it is a kind of social agreement that is implemented by software. And if people do not agree with each other, a fork will be inevitable. It is only a matter of time.”
A chance encounter with a chip designer
Bitmain and Wu’s power would never have come about had it not been for a chance encounter on a Beijing street. Zhan, the Sophon chip designer and the technical brains behind Bitmain, was running a startup called DivaIP in 2010 that made a set-top box that allowed a user to stream a television show to a computer screen. One of Zhan’s staff was canvassing for customers when Wu walked by....MUCH MORE