Man seeks to search landfill for lost $235M in Bitcoin using robot dogs, AI

An advertisement for Bitcoin cryptocurrency is displayed on a street in Hong Kong, on Feb. 17, 2022. Kin Cheung/AP Photo/File

In 2013, Welsh IT engineer James Howells made the decision to do a bit of housecleaning — an innocuous choice that would ultimately cost him hundreds of millions of dollars.

While clearing out some junk from his home, Howells, 37, accidentally threw out a hard drive containing around 8,000 bitcoins that he had mined during the early stages of the cryptocurrency’s development.

At the time, when bitcoin reached its peak price for 2013 in early December, Howells’ loss was valued at just under US$10 million.

In the intervening nine years, the price of a single Bitcoin has swelled to US$22,755, meaning Howell’s lost bitcoins are now worth a whopping US$182,296,000 (around $234,682,000).

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Howells isn’t taking this life-altering mistake lying down, however; he’s petitioning his city to allow him to dig up the local landfill in a bid to retrieve the nearly decade-old hard drive, and is promising to share the profits.

Howells says he has secured US$11 million in funding from a pair of venture capitalists to carry out a comprehensive search for the hard drive, using AI-powered scanners and robot dogs from Boston Dynamics.

If Howells’ search for buried treasure pans out, he said he will give 10 per cent of the recovered capital to the city of Newport to establish the Welsh town as a hub for cryptocurrency.

“We’ve got a whole list of incentives, of good cases we’d like to do for the community,” Howells said in an interview with BBC. “One of the things we’d like to do on the actual landfill site, once we’ve cleaned it up and recovered that land is put a power generation facility, maybe a couple of wind turbines.

“We’d like to set up a community-owned (bitcoin) mining facility which is using that clean electricity to create bitcoin for the people of Newport.”

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Howells also proposes to give £50 (about $78) worth of bitcoin to every resident of Newport and install cryptocurrency terminals in all local shops.

Despite these incentives, the City of Newport has not budged to allow Howells search, saying it would pose an ecological risk to the community.

Newport council owns the landfill and has said it has repeatedly denied Howells’ requests to excavate the site since 2013.

“We have statutory duties which we must carry out in managing the landfill site,” a spokesman for the council told the BBC. “Part of this is managing the ecological risk to the site and the wider area. Mr. Howells’ proposals pose significant ecological risk which we cannot accept, and indeed are prevented from considering by the terms of our permit.”

But the reluctance of the local council hasn’t stopped Howells from assembling a team he believes could retrieve the precious hard drive from the thousands of tonnes of compacted trash that has accumulated at the landfill.

“Digging up a landfill is a huge operation in itself,” he said.

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“The funding has been secured. We’ve brought on an AI specialist. Their technology can easily be retrained to search for a hard drive,” Howells told the BBC.

“We’ve also got an environmental team on board. We’ve basically got a well-rounded team of various experts, with various expertise, which, when we all come together, are capable of completing this task to a very high standard.”

Howells also wants to purchase two US$75,000 robotic dogs from Boston Dynamics to assist in the search, telling Insider that they would be used for security and to scan for the lost hard drives.

If the project goes ahead, Howells would name the dogs “Satoshi” and “Hal.”

(Satoshi Nakamoto is the pseudonym for the person or group who created bitcoin, and Hal Finney is the first person to receive a transaction of bitcoin from its creator.)

The two venture capitalists who would fund Howells’ recovery project have been promised 30 per cent of the bitcoin each if the hard drive is found, with the last 30 per cent going to Howell, according to Fortune.

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But even if the team of treasure hunters pulls off the impossible by securing permission from the city and actually finding the lost hard drive, there is no guarantee the bitcoin within will actually be recoverable.

After nearly a decade in a landfill, the hard drive may be broken beyond repair.

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