Ten long years ago, British IT engineer James Howells accidentally threw away a hard drive containing close to 8,000 Bitcoins – at its peak worth over US$550 million. In a desperate attempt to retrieve his lost BTC, Howells proposed that AI and robot dogs sift through tons of garbage in a municipal dump to find the missing hard drive. Only problem is, the council is having none of it.
The story of lost Bitcoin worth over half a billion dollars
As the story goes, Howells apparently had two identical hard drives stored in a drawer in 2013 – one blank, the other with some 8,000 in Bitcoin. During a spring clean, he intended to throw away the blank one, but instead it was the one with all the Bitcoin. Oops.
When he later realised the error of his ways, he went to the local municipal dump but got stonewalled each time with authorities who argued it was too expensive and detrimental to the environment.
Or maybe they were jealous or simply couldn’t be asked. Irrespective, while some may have given up on their lost Bitcoin, not Howells.
Since then, he has been battling with the Newport City Council and even offered them all sorts of incentives to grant him permission, including a share of the spoils (£50 million). Unfortunately, they don’t care much for Bitcoin or his idea.
So back to the drawing board he went.
AI and robot dogs to retrieve the missing fortune
Howells has now devised a new approach to find the lost Bitcoin, backed by US$11 million in venture capital, which he presented to the council in the latter half of last year.
Essentially, the plan is to trawl through tons of garbage using a combination of human sorters, robot dogs, and an artificial intelligence-powered machine trained to look for hard drives on a conveyor belt.
Howell outlined two versions of the plan, depending on council approval. The more costly version would take three years at a cost of US$11 million, whereas a scaled-down version would cost US$6 million over 18 months. Neither plan however is guaranteed to recover the lost Bitcoin.
Howells has assembled a team of experts across a number of key fields, including AI-powered sorting, landfill excavation, waste management, and data extraction.
In an interview with Business Insider, Howells addressed the council’s environmental concerns saying: “If anything, we want to leave everything in a better condition.”
But alas, in rather typical bureaucratic fashion, a representative of the council responded:
“There is nothing that Mr Howells could present to us that would make the council agree. His proposals pose significant ecological risk, which we cannot accept and indeed are prevented from considering by the terms of our permit.”
Discussions are however ongoing to recover the lost BTC and if successful, the recovery team will enjoy 30% of the proceeds, with Howell and the investors retaining 30% apiece. The balance would then be shared among each of Newport’s 150,000 residents.
In the absence of council approval and as a last resort, Howell is prepared to go to court over his lost Bitcoin, saying: “I’ve been reluctant to go down that route in the past because I’ve not wanted to cause problems”, stressing that he instead “wanted to work with Newport City Council”.
Richard Hammond of Top Gear fame has interviewed Howells in a fascinating short documentary. It is well worth watching to uncover the lengths a person will go to when faced with the prospect of losing life-altering wealth.
There’s a clear lesson in this rather unfortunate tale.
If you want to avoid being the victim of a lost BTC nightmare, you’ve got to learn the basics as to how to securely store it. Otherwise, you could end up like Howells, although let’s be frank, you certainly wouldn’t have as much Bitcoin.