The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is the runtime environment for smart contracts in Ethereum. It is a 256-bit register stack, designed to run the same code exactly as intended. It is the fundamental consensus mechanism for Ethereum. The formal definition of the EVM is specified in the Ethereum Yellow Paper.[34][37] On February 1, 2018, there were 27,500 nodes in the main Ethereum network.[38] Ethereum Virtual Machines have been implemented in C++, C#, Go, Haskell, Java, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, Rust, Elixir, Erlang, and soon, WebAssembly (currently under development).

In cryptocurrency networks, mining is a validation of transactions. For this effort, successful miners obtain new cryptocurrency as a reward. The reward decreases transaction fees by creating a complementary incentive to contribute to the processing power of the network. The rate of generating hashes, which validate any transaction, has been increased by the use of specialized machines such as FPGAs and ASICs running complex hashing algorithms like SHA-256 and Scrypt.[30] This arms race for cheaper-yet-efficient machines has been on since the day the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, was introduced in 2009.[30] With more people venturing into the world of virtual currency, generating hashes for this validation has become far more complex over the years, with miners having to invest large sums of money on employing multiple high performance ASICs. Thus the value of the currency obtained for finding a hash often does not justify the amount of money spent on setting up the machines, the cooling facilities to overcome the enormous amount of heat they produce, and the electricity required to run them.[30][31]

Ethereum was initially described in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin,[10] a programmer involved with Bitcoin Magazine, in late 2013 with a goal of building decentralized applications.[11][12] Buterin had argued that Bitcoin needed a scripting language for application development. Failing to gain agreement, he proposed development of a new platform with a more general scripting language.[4]:88
In Charles Stross' 2013 science fiction novel, Neptune's Brood, the universal interstellar payment system is known as "bitcoin" and operates using cryptography.[236] Stross later blogged that the reference was intentional, saying "I wrote Neptune's Brood in 2011. Bitcoin was obscure back then, and I figured had just enough name recognition to be a useful term for an interstellar currency: it'd clue people in that it was a networked digital currency."[237]
Like Bitcoin, Ethereum is a distributed public blockchain network. Although there are some significant technical differences between the two, the most important distinction to note is that Bitcoin and Ethereum differ substantially in purpose and capability. Bitcoin offers one particular application of blockchain technology, a peer to peer electronic cash system that enables online Bitcoin payments. While the Bitcoin blockchain is used to track ownership of digital currency (bitcoins), the Ethereum blockchain focuses on running the programming code of any decentralized application.

The Bank for International Settlements summarized several criticisms of bitcoin in Chapter V of their 2018 annual report. The criticisms include the lack of stability in bitcoin's price, the high energy consumption, high and variable transactions costs, the poor security and fraud at cryptocurrency exchanges, vulnerability to debasement (from forking), and the influence of miners.[198][199][200]

In 2014, researchers at the University of Kentucky found "robust evidence that computer programming enthusiasts and illegal activity drive interest in bitcoin, and find limited or no support for political and investment motives".[140] Australian researchers have estimated that 25% of all bitcoin users and 44% of all bitcoin transactions are associated with illegal activity as of April 2017. There were an estimated 24 million bitcoin users primarily using bitcoin for illegal activity. They held $8 billion worth of bitcoin, and made 36 million transactions valued at $72 billion.[233][234]
A lot of people have made fortunes by mining Bitcoins. Back in the days, you could make substantial profits from mining using just your computer, or even a powerful enough laptop. These days, Bitcoin mining can only become profitable if you’re willing to invest in an industrial-grade mining hardware. This, of course, incurs huge electricity bills on top of the price of all the necessary equipment.
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Venture capitalists, such as Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, which invested US$3 million in BitPay, do not purchase bitcoins themselves, but instead fund bitcoin infrastructure that provides payment systems to merchants, exchanges, wallet services, etc.[162] In 2012, an incubator for bitcoin-focused start-ups was founded by Adam Draper, with financing help from his father, venture capitalist Tim Draper, one of the largest bitcoin holders after winning an auction of 30,000 bitcoins,[163] at the time called "mystery buyer".[164] The company's goal is to fund 100 bitcoin businesses within 2–3 years with $10,000 to $20,000 for a 6% stake.[163] Investors also invest in bitcoin mining.[165] According to a 2015 study by Paolo Tasca, bitcoin startups raised almost $1 billion in three years (Q1 2012 – Q1 2015).[166]

The unit of account of the bitcoin system is a bitcoin. Ticker symbols used to represent bitcoin are BTC[b] and XBT.[c][76]:2 Its Unicode character is ₿.[1] Small amounts of bitcoin used as alternative units are millibitcoin (mBTC), and satoshi (sat). Named in homage to bitcoin's creator, a satoshi is the smallest amount within bitcoin representing 0.00000001 bitcoins, one hundred millionth of a bitcoin.[2] A millibitcoin equals 0.001 bitcoins; one thousandth of a bitcoin or 100,000 satoshis.[77]