To desperate problems, you know, desperate solutions.
In 2013 James Howells, a computer engineer, became a rare bird – or not so rare – among tycoons: he is a millionaire without millions. Or rather, the millions of him are lost in a huge dump of Wales in the form of Bitcoins, buried under tons of chicken bones, diapers and peels. Now, after years of trying to locate them, he has a solution to find the hard drive that houses them like a futuristic treasure chest. And it’s almost as outlandish as the challenge: calling on two special sleuths, two Spot robot dogs from Boston Dynamics.
The case of Howells is worthy of the script of the most gruesome of technological tragicomedies. Here we have already spoken to you on some occasion about him. Around 2009, the engineer mined at home, as an “experiment”, between 7,500 and 8,000 Bitcoins —the exact amount varies from one version to another—, a more than generous amount that he later stored, saved and forgot on an old hard drive .
Today it may seem crazy to us, but back then, when Howells was doing his first steps with cryptocurrencies, a Bitcoin was barely worth anything. A few years later, in August 2013, tired of seeing that old junk in the drawers, the Welshman decided throw the disk in the trash along with a few bare wires and a broken mouse. And with it, of course, cryptocurrencies went.
A treasure under tons of garbage
He realized the huge blunder only a few months later, when —he tells new yorker— saw a BBC report about a young Norwegian who had paid a down payment on an apartment with the earnings of his thousand Bitcoins. Before they ended up in the trash, Howells had between $7,500 and $8,000, which by the fall of 2013 was already worth a whopping $1.4 million. And up. That was also for a good and luxurious apartment.
However, it was more difficult for the Newport engineer to make a profit from them than for the happy miner in Oslo. The reason: your Bitcoins were already buried under bags, bags and more bags with the detritus of their neighbors. Embarrassed, not really wanting to tell his story, Howells let time pass without sharing it with anyone. He was silent. Bitcoin was up. And the mistake, he would admit later, was getting bigger and bigger, like a huge snowball.
When his old hard drive was already worth six million, he decided to make a move.
Since then, Howells has moved heaven and earth to be allowed to remove the trash at the local landfill. He left his job, contacted the city council, went to the Welsh and British Parliament, got the support of investors willing to finance the complex and expensive rescue operation and even tempted the City Council of Newport, his main obstacle, guaranteeing that if the maneuver had successful and they recovered the hard drive you could keep 25% of the money.
It was of little use to him. Although the person in charge of the landfill calculates that the hard disk was dumped on an area that can be limited to 250 m2 – there is also a logic to garbage management – the local authorities, who really should authorize the work, have not been convinced that Howells and his partners remove the trash from the town. “His proposals from him pose a significant ecological risk that we cannot accept”, emphasize from the municipal government.
Now Howells has decided to find an alternative and make use of two allies worthy of his bizarre story. In an interview with Business Insider He has explained that he wants to use two Boston Dynamics Spot robotic dogs equipped with closed-circuit cameras.
His idea is that scan the ground, just like two real bloodhounds, on the hunt for the lost hard drive. The idea may not be entirely far-fetched. Boston’s devices have been used before for tasks as disparate as scanning construction projects or grazing.
Putting your plan into practice will not be easy. First because of the cost it represents. Spot went on sale in 2020 with a price of almost 73,000 euros per unit, a more than respectable amount that Howells could afford, he says, thanks to the financing of two venture capital investors. In total, it calculates that completing the entire operation will require the disbursement of 10.77 million euros.
In addition to the robots, the engineer plans to build facilities next to the landfill from which a team of experts in AI, excavation, waste management and data extraction can comfortably maneuver. The objective: to find the coveted disc that shot nine years ago.
The second big “but” that the engineer must wade through is the reluctance of the City Council, which over the last few years has repeatedly refused to remove the rubble and even today continues to be reluctant. “There is nothing that can present us”, he recently explained to Business.
Against Howells not only the bureaucratic obstacles, the cost of the ransom or the tons of garbage that separate him from his coveted hard drive and its bitcoin content play. Perhaps his great enemy is time and cryptocurrency fluctuations. At the end of 2021, his crypto treasure was worth more than 315 million euros. Today, just seven months later, but after the ups and downs and the loss of value, his 7,500 bitcoins would already be around 160 million dollars.
The story, of course, is up there with the best treasure hunt.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism