Recently, I created my first and second (and probably last) NFT. NFT, which is a TLA(1) for Non-Fungible Token, is built on Blockchain technology, which is also the basis for crypto currency, such as Bitcoin. NFT is all the rage in the arts community these days because an artist can create an NFT based on a piece of work (such as a digital photograph, photograph of a work of art in some other medium or even a video). That work can then be sold as an NFT and its provenance guaranteed (or, more accurately, verified) through the Blockchain.
“Why last?” you might ask. The answer begins with an article in The New York Times published on September 5, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html. That article documents the shocking growth of computing power needed to maintain the Blockchain.(2) I say “shocking” because computing power consumes electricity. (As an aside, I find, as a (retired) IT professional with a master’s degree in Computer and Information Science, the whole idea of spinning CPU cycles just to prove that you have done so is somewhat like jacking up your (front wheel drive) car’s wheels, putting the car in Drive, and spinning the wheels just to show that you can.)
There are two obvious environmental problems with Blockchain technology. Blockchain maintenance is highly competitive and success depends on computational speed. This causes those who compete in this field to upgrade their computing equipment as quickly as possible, meaning that used computers fill recycling centers and landfills at breakneck speeds, burying toxic metals, plastics and other undesirable garbage.
Along with this increase in computational power and speed comes increased use of electricity. The generation of electricity is currently (sic.) one of the main contributors to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and, thus, to rising temperatures. In order to curb global temperature increases (which many believe is necessary for human survival), we will need to reduce or eliminate electricity generation from coal, gas and oil (so-called fossil fuels) and replace it with generation from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and perhaps nuclear. If we are to succeed in slowing or stopping global warming, it seems obvious that we must increase electricity production from renewal sources at least as fast as we increase electricity production—probably a great deal faster. There needs to be a two-pronged approach: increasing production from renewal resources while slowing, stopping or even reducing production from fossil fuels.
Applications based on Blockchain technology seem bound to continue their use of electricity at a higher rate than we are able to increase generation of electricity from renewable sources. Hence, Blockchain (crypto currency, NFTs, etc.) must be curtailed.
But Blockchain applications have social benefits, right? They are independent of governmental regulation. They allow for anonymous transactions. They have the capability to make the wealthy much more wealthy. They provide a basis for ransom demands. They may even make Internet and other cryptography-based security measures easier to compromise.
NFTs in particular have beneficial uses. They have spawned a new industry in digital collectibles (e.g. crypto kitties). Who thinks we don’t need a digital replacement for Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch Kids? Oh yes, and they seem to provide some benefit to artists.
As a worldwide human community, we can’t afford the Blockchain. I would ask other artists to abandon NFTs and join the opposition to the Blockchain.
(1) TLA = Three Letter Acronym
(2) At this time, the exponential growth of computing power consumed by blockchain-based applications seems unavoidable. To understand this, we need to consider three classes of problems. The first are problems that can be solved in an amount of time bounded by a polynomial (P). In other words, as the size of the problem’s input grows (e.g. the number of words to be sorted in a list), the amount of time required to solve the problem is bounded by a polynomial (i.e. a mathematical expression that may include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and exponentiation to a fixed non-negative exponent). It is worth noting that because a problem is in P doesn’t mean it can easily be solved. The time required to sort a list of words alphabetically can be bounded by the square of the number of words in the list, but for a large number of words, that’s still a lot of computing.
A second class of problems are called NP. This means that if you have a proposed solution to the problem, the proposal can be validated (or refuted) in an amount of time bounded by a polynomial. This does not mean that there’s an NP algorithm to create a proposed solution, only that if you have some way of guessing, you can know whether your guess is correct or not in an amount of effort bounded by a polynomial.
There is an open question on mathematics as to whether P = NP. In other words, is it possible that any problem solvable in Non-polynomial time could also be solved in polynomial time. There is a subclass of NP problems called NP-complete, meaning that if you found a P solution for one of them, it could be used to create a P solution for all of then. This has been a question of research going back over thirty years.
The third class of problems, known as NP-hard, are problems to which no known polynomial time solution exists, even if you already have a way to generate guesses. In other words, the amount of effort to verify or refute the guess is not known to be NP or easier.
One classification of Blockchain algorithms requires a “proof-of-work” (PoW). PoW implementations are generally either NP-complete or NP-hard. The Bitcoin algorithm, for example, requires PoW. Another set of blockchain algorithms, called “Proof-of-stake” (PoS) are easier, but may still be NP-complete.