James Howells, from Newport in Southern Wales, is known as the man who accidentally threw out a hard drive containing 8,000 Bitcoins. He has now come up with an $11 million high-tech treasure hunt to get it back.
Bitcoin has been growing in popularity since its emergence back in 2009, becoming the world’s best-known cryptocurrency with more than 180 million users worldwide. It is commonly used for investment and trading, but the coin is also popular for a multitude of transactions, from purchasing luxury watches, cars and electronics to using crypto currency to play online casino games.
In 2013, Howells made the most expensive mistake of his life. Thinking he was disposing of a blank hard drive during an office clear out, he inadvertently threw away a hard drive containing 8,000 Bitcoins. Today, those Bitcoins are worth a fortune - over $160 million. Nine years later, he is a man on a mission, desperate to recover his lost treasure.
However, unfortunately for Howells, it is no easy task. In order to reclaim his stash, he needs to persuade the local authorities to excavate the landfill where the hard drive is buried. For almost a decade, Newport’s City Council has denied him access to dig up his hard drive. They say it is too expensive and would cause damage to the environment.
Undeterred by their continuous rebuttals, Howells has come up with an elaborate plan. He hopes his $11 million proposal, which is backed by venture-capital funding, will persuade the council to search through 110,000 tons of garbage.
While the famous phrase “looking for a needle in a haystack” feels rather fitting for the task, Howells believes it is achievable. He proposes a combination of human sorters, robot dogs, and an artificial-intelligence-powered machine trained to look for hard drives on a conveyor belt, to do the job.
Determined to cover all bases, Howells has two versions to his plan, based on how much of the landfill the council would grant him access to. The most extensive option, which would take approximately three years and involve scouring through the full 110,000 tons of rubbish, would cost $11 million. The scaled-back version, involving less landfill, comes in at a slightly cheaper cost of $6 million and would take 18 months.
Howells has assembled a team of experts who specialize in areas such as AI-powered sorting, waste management, data extraction and landfill excavation. He has even managed to persuade an advisor who worked for the company that recovered data from the black box of the crashed Columbia space shuttle to join his team. His panel of experts, along with their companies, would be contracted to execute the task, receiving a bonus should the hoard be successfully recovered.
The plan itself entails machines digging up the garbage, and then a mixture of human pickers and AI machinery to sift through it all at a pop-up facility. The machine, called Max-AI, would be similar to a scanner set over a conveyor belt of garbage, and would use a mechanical arm to pick out any objects that could be contenders to the hard drive. In line with his meticulous planning, Howells has budgeted for security costs to ensure no one else tries to recover the hard drive themselves, involving robot ‘spot’ dogs who will patrol the area.
In order to prevent damage to the environment, Howells proposes that everything will be left in a better condition. After the excavation, the garbage would be cleaned and as much of it as possible would be recycled. The rest would be reburied. He has even offered the council a share of the money, pledged to hand Bitcoin shares to the local residents and fund the opening of a cryptocurrency hub if he is successful.
James’s extraordinary story has captured the imagination of technology lovers around the world, and former Top Gear host, Richard Hammond, has made a documentary with him about his search, describing it as a “story that goes from incredibly mundane to colossal.”
To date, Newport City Council is yet to agree to Howell’s $11 million proposal. His quest continues.