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Will laser technology rid Africa of malaria?

February 16, 2010 - 12:11 -- Bart G.J. Knols

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... 


Mark Benedict's picture
Submitted by Mark Benedict on

Great parody of the laser mosquito zapper! Actually I *can* think of a few good applications - in the laboratory. But the hype around this particular device is only a bit more inappropriate than any unsustainable effort to reduce malaria transmission. All raise the prospect of an intervention that is not durable.

I applaud anyone who devises any method using whatever expertise to reduce transmission. While many will think this one is funny, the team probably brought their best knowledge and perspective to the project. We all do. Go for it, but it won't end malaria transmission, and it should not be sold that way. I would also not advise donors to fund such with the promise that they can.

As for those Star Wars ideas, sometimes they do get pulled out of the drawer, for good or ill.

Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

I agree with you, Mark. Thinking about other possibilities for this technology, how about using the laser that senses the position of the mosquito as a means to track its flight path? This will depend on the width of the band in which the mosquito can be followed, but if a laser could 'log on' to a single mosquito this might be a great research tool to study behaviour in and around the house.

Remco Suer's picture
Submitted by Remco Suer on

I agree with Mark. They have done their best to use their knowledge to create a new way of killing mosquitoes. And if it truly works as they claim it will, it is a great technological masterpiece. But it is indeed unethical to sell this to the world as a real way of ending malaria transmission.
To me this is a clear example of western scientific thinking. Creating a solution to a problem / disease without having a clue if your solution is appropriate, if it could work where it is needed, if it will be accepted by the people who suffer from the disease and especially if they can afford it. And I truly believe that these scientists mean well. They do think about costs and about integration with other strategies, knowing that the malaria problem probably won't be solved by one simple invention. No matter how great. But it keeps surprising me that they compare it to their standards of living.They still can't relate to the situation in Africa and keep living in their own world. They write on their site:

"Although this approach may sound high-tech, the basic components needed for such a system largely exist already in inexpensive consumer electronics, such as laser printers, Blu-ray disc writers, camcorders, and video game consoles. The working prototype at Intellectual Ventures Lab was constructed almost entirely from parts purchased second-hand on eBay and similar websites."

Every single one of these "inexpensive consumer electronics" is an equivalent of several months food for a whole family.

Until scientist realize these trivial comparisons I think this money is not spend well. I won't say it is a complete waste because they might stumble upon interesting things but it won't achieve their goal, ending malaria transmission, now. To many things must change before a product like this could be implemented.

Which raises another interesting question. Should this kind of research be stimulated? Even though they have made their device from second-hand products. The costs of such a technological project are immense. With the same kind of money several villages or more could be provided with complete integrated control strategies with LLIN's, ACT's, IPT etc for a longer period of time. Or it could improve the infrastructure and health system providing a firm base for further control.

Remco Suer

Mark Benedict's picture
Submitted by Mark Benedict on

Remco, I think you are right on target. I do want to respond to one issue:

"Which raises another interesting question. Should this kind of research be stimulated?...With the same kind of money several villages or more could be provided with complete integrated control strategies with LLIN's, ACT's, IPT etc for a longer period of time. Or it could improve the infrastructure and..."

These are two different activities: innovation vs. philanthropy. Some are called to heal wounds: others are called to develop new antibiotics. Ok. This laser zapper is not practical and the developers may be naive. But if the world had a thousand innovators like these, we might have some durable solutions.

On the other hand, if all of that money had been spent on existing interventions, when the money is gone, we will still have malaria. Each of us must follow our calling and leave others to follow theirs.

Remco Suer's picture
Submitted by Remco Suer on

Mark, you are right. Innovation must be stimulated otherwise we keep standing still.

But sometimes I have the idea that projects are being funded that, even when they do reach their goal, can't be implemented because there is no market. It's like inventing a perfect electric car but no way to recharge it. The technology is brilliant but if the infrastructure is not there yet it becomes useless. But here we are dealing with a deadly disease, so a bit of realism should be present.

Or worse sometimes I even doubt that finding a solution to the malaria problem is the first priority of a project. In this case I would say: isn't it better to use this money to try to make small but sustainable changes. This however is a completely different discussion.

But you are right we definitely need innovators, naive or not, that truly want to find a solution. And go for it with all their enthusiasm and knowledge.

Remco Suer

Rajas Sirvoicar's picture
Submitted by Rajas Sirvoicar on

I must say the video you have posted is very amusing. I agree with your views on the commercial aspects of some high tech solutions for mosquito eradication. Most solution seekers are far from the ground realities of situation at site. The socio economic and infrastructural realities are very challenging to invent a device that will meet all criteria for success.

In the early fifties the laser was a mammoth device. There were views that it is very expensive and economically unviable. However, we now have laser devices on our work table. Maybe in future this video will be an acceptable reality.

Submitted by Matthew E (not verified) on

It's interesting that you're so dismissive of IV's response, below. It seems to me like the bulk of your concerns have been addressed quite substantially by their response. One that hasn't is electricity. Of course, there are places in Africa (and the USA) that don't have electricity. But it looks to me like enough of Africa's population has access to electricity that two years ago, more than 20% of the population of all but a few states of the continent already had the money, electricity and other infrastructure needed to support mobile phones*. How about a more even-handed response? How many years away is the tipping point? We've eliminated diseases with vaccines, even though they aren't 100% effective at preventing an individual exposure...
* (see graphic)

Submitted by pablos08 (not verified) on

I work at the Intellectual Ventures Lab, where this laser system was invented. Thanks for giving it some consideration. A few of the points raised here and in the comments are worth responding to:

We've never imagined this, or any invention to be a panacea for malaria, but an additional tool to help with eradication. We put a lot more effort into our epidemiological modeling work which helps us measure the potential for these ideas.

That said, many of us have spent time in Africa, and we aren't completely oblivious to the complexities there. 15 years ago, the same arguments might have been made about mobile phones being too expensive for Africa. After all, for what a phone cost, you could build a whole house, fitted with screens & bednets. Yet you find mobile phones in Africa - because the cost of solid state electronics still follow Moore's law.

Also, we don't shoot humans. They don't flap their wings at the same frequency as mosquitoes, so they're pretty easy to miss. There are lots of other ways to detect them and avoid shooting when they're around.

The tracking system indeed seems useful for other kinds of research, and we are looking at cooperating with other mosquito researchers to make this available to them.

One valuable thing to understand about this system is that it analyzes every single target before shooting it. Other means of attacking mosquitoes (& pests in general) are non-discriminate. We have a system that is very specific and causes no unintentional harm.

Lastly, it seems unfair to say we are acting unethically. We are in fact trying to call attention to the scale of the problem malaria presents in Africa. We are working on numerous inventions to help with that. We don't profit from them. Please feel free to contact me directly if I'm missing something.

Thanks, Pablos.

Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

There are at least 4 sites in Africa that have so-called semi-field systems, where you can experiment under controlled conditions. These simulate the natural environment (local house, crops, vegetation etc) and can be used to test the laser approach in a controlled setup. You can release reared malaria mosquitoes in any given number and see what happens. What is holding this back? If anything, a demonstration of proof-of-principle in Africa would be very important, as John suggests below.

Kiara Gooden's picture
Submitted by Kiara Gooden on

I have read in countless academic essays that Africa is doomed country from the start because of climate conditions as well as the barren and desolate conditions of the land. Add tribal conflict and ethnic-related violence towards one another and you have a humanitarian fallout ticking like a time bomb. And we need to give everything we could to help our brethren and laser technology could prove to be ground-breaking and will definitely have lasting effects.

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I have no idea how it's going to help but if it proves to be helpful, though if things went well Africa will be much relieved!
Linux web hosting

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

The tracking system indeed seems useful for other kinds of research, and we are looking at cooperating with other mosquito researchers to make this available to them. sbobet sbobet sbobet

Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

I have, last week, contacted the CEO of Intellectual Ventures to find out if they are planning field work in Africa. I have offered to connect them to field sites where the laser technology may be tested... but it all stays very quiet...

Submitted by Angela (not verified) on

Enjoy TED Talks..I watch their videos almost daily..the ones on psichology are amazing!
Angela from v2 cigs

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

Wow I wasn't aware of this new technology. I really hope to incorporate this new idea to rid my
Seminyak Villas
of those dreadful mosquitoes.

These "low-cost consumer electronics products," each of which is equivalent to several months of food the whole family. Until scientists understand these trivial comparison, I think the money is not spent well. I would not say this is a complete waste, because they might stumble upon something interesting, but it will not achieve their goal, ending the spread of malaria, now. For many things that must be changed in order to implement such a product.