LEHIGH COUNTY, Pa. — Parts of our area, once known for coal mining, are now home to cryptocurrency mines. Instead of manual labor, it's computers doing the mining now.
It's happening on the small scale in homes and offices across northeastern and central Pennsylvania, and there are large-scale operations, too.
The mining in this world is the part you can't see.
Instead of chipping away at coal, the computers are crunching numbers, verifying records over and over on something called a blockchain.
It's actually just computer code, but you can picture it as chain of blocks. Each block contains thousands of entries on a public digital ledger. Since all the miners can see that ledger and verify its authenticity., blockchains are very difficult to hack, and there's no central authority needed to run them.
You can find experts on blockchain technology just to our south at Lehigh University.
"Very few universities are doing anything, and we're doing quite a bit," said Lehigh Professor Hank Korth, director of the university's Blockchain Lab.
Lehigh's Blockchain Lab is one of the leading efforts in the country to prepare students in all disciplines to work with the technology.
"We need more people in government, in business, in society generally, who can approach the issues of decentralization of blockchain, of digital currency in a knowledgeable way. So, I think the biggest contributions we're making here, even though I'm really proud of our research, the biggest contribution is the students," Korth added.
One of those students is recent Masters grad Max Vezenov from Lehigh County.
He knows firsthand how decentralized digital currency can be beneficial.
"I have Russian and Ukrainian family. When the war started, PayPal didn't even work. And the only way you could send money was bitcoin. Luckily she had some cash, US dollars she could hold, but it was the only thing that worked for about a week there," Vezenov said.
Vezenov is leaving Lehigh to work for a startup creating a kind of software called "zero knowledge proofs." Basically, it uses blockchain technology to securely verify someone's identity without revealing personal data.
"Imagine now, you give the bank your social security number so they can run a credit check on you. Now, instead, I give you a zero knowledge proof of my social security number," Vezenov added.
Professor Korth and Max Vezenov said blockchain has endless possibilities, some they hope are discovered at Lehigh University.
"Creating some huge applications in terms of business, enterprise, and even the way individuals interact with the world," Korth said.
And if coal mining is still an easier concept to grasp, they said, don't worry. It will eventually feel like second nature.
"We all have cell phones, we all can call or text anybody at any time and anywhere. We think that's normal. This was extraordinary at the time. I think we're seeing a similar transition here in terms of ownership of information and access to markets that is going to be fundamentally different, and we're on the cusp of that change," Korth added.
Pennsylvania is part of the next technological revolution.
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