Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mosquitoes, High Tech, the Scam of Nathan Myhrvold?

I've had the pleasure of spending time with Sonia Shah, author of such books as Crude: The Story of Oil and The Body Hunters. She was in Spokane in 2006 as part of some sustainability events I organized through Spokane Falls Community College and other colleges and public and private cooperation. She was on KYRS for an hour discussion. She made the rounds all over town.

Check out her discussion on Oil in this podcast -- low tech


She is at the forefront of issues tied to technology and corporations. Here's her look at the malaria debate, not looking at Bill and Melinda Gates this time. It's about the scam of technology and high-tech as a way to solve malaria, a multi-million person killer worldwide yearly.


Why this for Autodesk and PacifiCAD? It's obvious -- we're at the cutting edge of technology and software development as a tool for change, for working on those issues tied to development and sustainable development.

Here's Sonia's critique of the Star Wars zapper for malaria coming from a Microsoft guru. We need these critiques in a time of green washing, profiteering, false dichotomies, propaganda, and delay, denial and retrograde thinking. Will a high-tech computer based solution solve malaria? Nope. But let the blog reader be the judge.


Sonia Shah blogged:

"Doesn’t Nathan Myhrvold get enough attention? The guy is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, a multimillionaire, a gourmet chef, a prize-winning photographer and keeper of multiple higher degrees from prestigious institutions. As the CEO and founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private outfit that invests in “pure inventions,” he frequently finds himself in the news.

And yet, at the annual techno-hip TED conference in February, Myhrvold decided to up the ante, tapping into the misery of millions of rural African women and their families to wrap his business in a cloak of moral urgency. “Every 43 seconds a child dies of malaria,” he told the crowd. And current anti-malaria interventions, many of which target the rural African women and children who are malaria’s main victims, don’t work that well, he said. Insecticides can be environmentally dangerous and some people use anti-mosquito bednets to catch fish instead.

That’s why Myhrvold came up with his latest invention: A mini-”Star Wars” weapons system that tracks mosquitoes in the air and shoots them down mid-flight–with lasers, of course. Like a Death Ray. All you need to make one is a Blu-ray player and a laser printer, plus a few months of processing time on a supercomputer, and voila!: you’re on your way to eradicating malaria in Africa for good.

Oh. My.

Obviously this would never work. Many malaria clinics in rural Africa don’t even have wire screens on their windows—how in hell are they going to install mosquito death-ray systems? There’s no regular electricity in rural African villages where malaria lurks. In villages like Namacha, in southern Malawi, where locals receive 170 bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes every year, there’s no running water. Most people don’t even own any furniture.

That’s why the international campaign to stanch malaria, “Roll Back Malaria,” has for years been implementing a series of other measures. For example, lightweight, cheap bednets that can be hung over women and children at night, as they sleep in their huts. And drugs that do not require refrigeration that can be distributed to pregnant women. These aren’t the very best interventions, the ones that will definitely end malaria in the most direct way. But they’re the best interventions that can actually be implemented.

Mhyrvold’s no dummy. He knows this.
So why pretend that your useless gizmo is actually going to save African women and children from a killer disease? Because it gets you lots of attention. Wired covered Mhyrvold’s gadget, as did the New York Times, The Atlantic, and scores of bloggers, Twitterers and Facebook users. (“I want one!” wrote one typical enthusiast.) Malariologists were called out from their labs and clinics by eager reporters wanting a comment on how Mhyrvold’s invention might finally save the world from malaria.

One, the Dutch malaria expert Bart Knols, got it right when he called Myrhold’s invention “ridiculous” and its promotion as an anti-malaria device “unethical.” In fact, it is worse than that. Mhyrvold used the very real suffering of African women and children from malaria to garner attention for himself and his gee-whiz gadget that won’t make a lick of difference in their lives. It’s the very definition of exploitation.

Worst of all is the disservice this kind of gimmickry does to the campaign to counter malaria. The real challenges in taming malaria hardly ever make it into headlines. Mhyrvold’s anti-malaria invention did. But what’s his message? That new technology and cool gadgetry–Intellectual Ventures’ raison d’etre–will solve the problem?

I mean, really. Saving African women and children from malaria doesn’t require new research into cool gizmos. What we need to do is find the political will and funding to implement all the old research that we’ve already done. Like distributing bednets, and cheap drugs. Building health clinics. And roads. Maybe it’s boring. Maybe not the best fodder for a flashy TED presentation. But it’s the only reasonable way forward. "

Will laser technology rid Africa of malaria?

Submitted by Bart Knols on February 16, 2010 - 12:11

Last week, Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, presented a fascinating new invention to the world during a talk at the TED conference. The TED talks are renowned for providing a stage for great people with great ideas...

Speaking at TED means a lot of global attention, and Myhrvold played his cards right. With a display of the invention that uses laser technology to shoot down mosquitoes on the wing, and some stunning video footage, it was certain that the global press would jump on the story.

Hundreds of websites and facebook pages covered this breakthrough, that was twittered to hundreds of thousands of people around the planet. Intellectual Ventures, the company headed by Myhrvold, has done well this week. Interestingly, although the world may think this is a new invention, it is not. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on the same invention on 14 March 2009. Back then the video footage wasn't as exciting, leading to limited press attention. But why did Myhrvold not use the last ten months to demonstrate the potential of his invention in the real world, in a rural setting somewhere in Africa?

On his way to a rural house in the middle of Tanzania Myhrvold would suddenly panic. He would discover that as he moves into the countryside that there is no electricity. Bummer. Next, he would have to set up at least three curtains (in a triangular fashion) around a local house, needing three lenses, lasers, and of course sophisticated computer soft- and hardware.

He would need an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) to make sure the surges in voltage would not damage the equipment. All of this would add up to a cost that one could build a pretty fancy new house for, fully screened, fitted with bednets. Imagine a village of fifty houses and the equipment that would be needed there to blast mosquitoes...

And then, what would happen if someone passes a 'curtain' and his eye is in line with a mosquito being zapped at that very moment? Not nice, I guess. My initial plan was not to write about Myhrvold's invention, fuelling attention. But I kept being bomarded with email asking me about this great new idea, and this morning I gave a radio interview on the matter for the world service. Martin Enserink, journalist at Science magazine, agreed with me that it is unethical to market such an invention by telling the press that every 43 seconds a child dies of malaria.

I stand to be proven wrong, but Intellectual Ventures' invention will probably face the same fate as the US Star Wars programme of the 1980s. It will end up in a drawer, never to be heard of again. Still a believer? Then watch this video...


  1. Dear Paul,

    Many thanks for this blog, and re-blogging the one I posted on MalariaWorld. Meanwhile I have challenged Intellectual Ventures to demonstrate the efficacy of their laser gun under controlled semi-field conditions in Africa. Something I am prepared to help them with.

    But...it remains quiet on their end. Not a word...

    MalariaWorld; www.malariaworld.org

  2. Bart -- Thanks for reminding me I re-blogged some great information about IV's zapping "bug wars" gizmo. I have an hour long weekly radio show, Tipping Points: Voices from the Edge. www.kyrs.org. I'd like an hour with you on the show to discuss those disease epidemic countries most at risk, malaria, climate change affecting disease, health, etc. and other issues you grapple with witin your field and around other pursuits confronting disease, vector-borne epidemics, and equity and inequity in this malaria arena. Additionally, I'd love to read the full text of the co-authored journal article on transgenic mosquitoes and malaria. Not so sure about letting transgenic Franken-sqeeters running amok in Africa and other DEC's.


    Genetic modification (GM) of mosquitoes (which renders them genetically modified organisms, GMOs) offers opportunities for controlling malaria. Transgenic strains of mosquitoes have been developed and evaluation of these to 1) replace or suppress wild vector populations and 2) reduce transmission and deliver public health gains are an imminent prospect. The transition of this approach from confined laboratory settings to open field trials in disease-endemic countries (DECs) is a staged process that aims to maximize the likelihood of epidemiologic benefits while minimizing potential pitfalls during implementation. Unlike conventional approaches to vector control, application of GM mosquitoes will face contrasting expectations of multiple stakeholders, the management of which will prove critical to safeguard support and avoid antagonism, so that potential public health benefits can be fully evaluated. Inclusion of key stakeholders in decision-making processes, transfer of problem-ownership to DECs, and increased support from the wider malaria research community are important prerequisites for this. It is argued that the many developments in this field require coordination by an international entity to serve as a guiding coalition to stimulate collaborative research and facilitate stakeholder involvement. Contemporary developments in the field of modern biotechnology, and in particular GM, requires competencies beyond the field of biology, and the future of transgenic mosquitoes will hinge on the ability to govern the process of their introduction in societies in which perceived risks may outweigh rational and responsible involvement.

  3. http://www.ajtmh.org/cgi/content/full/77/6_Suppl/vi

    Bart GJ Knols' journal piece on transgenic mosquitoes


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