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...