Highlights from TED 2010, Thursday: "Shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers"


51 Responses to “Highlights from TED 2010, Thursday: "Shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers"”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s easy to attack Scalia’s opinion, when you reduce it to a sentence and ignore most of his reasoning. Here’s a quotation from Scalia:

    “My belief that today’s judgment is clearly in error should not be mistaken for a belief that the PGA TOUR clearly ought not allow respondent to use a golf cart. That is a close question, on which even those who compete in the PGA TOUR are apparently divided; but it is a different question from the one before the Court. Just as it is a different question whether the Little League ought to give disabled youngsters a fourth strike, or some other waiver from the rules that makes up for their disabilities. In both cases, whether they ought to do so depends upon (1) how central to the game that they have organized (and over whose rules they are the master) they deem the waived provision to be, and (2) how competitive—how strict a test of raw athletic ability in all aspects of the competition—they want their game to be. But whether Congress has said they must do so depends upon the answers to the legal questions I have discussed above—not upon what this Court sententiously decrees to be “decent, tolerant, [and] progressive,” ante, at 13 (quoting Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U. S. 356, 375 (2001) (Kennedy, J., concurring)).

    And it should not be assumed that today’s decent, tolerant, and progressive judgment will, in the long run, accrue to the benefit of sports competitors with disabilities. Now that it is clear courts will review the rules of sports for “fundamentalness,” organizations that value their autonomy have every incentive to defend vigorously the necessity of every regulation. They may still be second-guessed in the end as to the Platonic requirements of the sport, but they will assuredly lose if they have at all wavered in their enforcement. The lesson the PGA TOUR and other sports organizations should take from this case is to make sure that the same written rules are set forth for all levels of play, and never voluntarily to grant any modifications. The second lesson is to end open tryouts. I doubt that, in the long run, even disabled athletes will be well served by these incentives that the Court has created.”

    Scalia gives two reasons why courts can’t decide what is “essential” to a sport. First, the sports organization is “the master” of the sport’s rules. The PGA creates the rules of golf on its tour and decides how strictly each will be enforced. The court may deem a certain rule “essential,” but the PGA is still free to eliminate that rule. The PGA’s greater authority to create the sport’s rules includes the lesser authority to decide which rules are minor and waiveable. To inform the PGA it is wrong about which of its own rules matter is absurd.

    Second, Scalia points out that the PGA has no “legal obligation to play classic, Platonic golf.” The section of the ADA at issue was designed to protect disabled customers, not professional athletes working as independent contractors for the business at issue. To treat golfers as customers of the PGA, subject to ADA protection, makes a mockery of a statute designed to protect truly disabled people who couldn’t access the basic services of modern life.

    Your argument that sports rules are not arbitrary, because they are designed to bring out the best in athletes, is nonsensical. No matter what the rules are, athletes will try their best to win. What if NBA hoops were 11 feet high instead of 10? There may be less dunkers and lane play, and more three-point shooters. but basketball would still “bring out the best” in its players. The content of what’s “best” varies by the rules, which the organization defines.

    You ignore Scalia’s more down-to-earth concerns. First, sports organizations will now enforce every rule strictly, to ensure no court will have grounds to deem it “inessential” later. This deters organizations from voluntarily waiving rules for disabled athletes on a case-by-case basis. If they waive it once, the court will decide they can waive it again. Second, organizations will cease open tryouts, and instead only invite non-disabled competitors to private tryouts. This avoids lawsuits from disabled competitors seeking to alter what the organization and its competitors have deemed essential rules.

    That competitive sports should have their rules dictated by federal judges, to ensure competitor equality, comes close to a dystopian vision. As Scalia says, “The year was 2001, and ‘everybody was finally equal.’ K. Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron, in Animal Farm and Related Readings 129 (1997).”

  2. Anonymous says:

    malaria rain – sounds like a good movie title.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have been thinking of killing mosquitos with laser for years! Great some one is finally making this real!

  4. Anonymous says:

    No moot?

  5. Ito Kagehisa says:

    I wouldn’t want to kill all the mosquitoes. That would kill all the dragonflies and several species of fish, and severely impact the bats, and leave a hole in the ecosystem that something else would fill. Maybe something much worse, like bot flies on steroids, for all I know. Tampering with a working ecosystem is like dumping a barrow-load of wrenches into Big Ben and hoping it’ll stop running five minutes slow… you might get lucky.

    The malaria comes from humans. It doesn’t come from the bugs, the bugs are just a medium of transmission. Cure the humans and you stop malaria. After all, that’s what we in the United States did. We still have mosquitoes, but there’s no significant malarial reservoir in the human population to be tranmitted by the bugs. Wikipedia says of the 1,059 cases of malaria in the USA reported in 2002, only 5 were actually contracted in the USA. Because the USA made a concerted effort to cut the contact between bugs and infected humans down to the point where the disease was no longer able to maintain its life cycle, it got wiped out. But there’s no law that says you have to use DDT and paris green, that’s just one possible means of attack. A vaccine would work in places where mosquito control is impossible or impractical.

    A vaccine would be a much better idea, and could probably be created for less than the cost of four years of American military adventuring in the Middle East. Or at least, it’d be a better use for the money even if you didn’t succeed. But personally I prefer to think a race that can zap flying mosquitoes with lasers can find a vaccine for a protozoan.

  6. greengestalt says:

    —From Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”

    “And I believe
    These are the days of lasers in the jungle
    Lasers in the jungle somewhere”

    Seriously, though, lasers in the jungle… What doofuses. Oh, they are smart, but most smart people are also very stupid. It’s simple “Game Theory”… What is cheapest? What is most effective? What are the resources for spreading it? Is there a way to make a vaccine?

    Here’s what I’d do: Oil to Africa.

    They killed it in Panama during the canal project by dumping oil in the standing water.

    This suffocated the “Gills” the mosquito nymphs used to hold above the water to breathe. Nowadays, we’d use vegetable oil being more environmental minded, but Africa’s a pretty dry country, not that much water, especially standing water. Break the cycle by killing all the mosquitos at the birthing stage, you won’t have any Malaria in Africa. Just spend a few months keeping all the standing water oily, along with lots of bottled water, energy efficient ovens and food giveouts so the project is communicated and people get healthier, can get screened for disease, etc. Along the way, we can give them vitamins, medicine for a few types of worms and do mass vaccinations for Rabies.

    A project like that would cost a few billion dollars and require massive Red Cross/UN coordination, but it’s benefits would be incalculable.

    • jere7my says:

      Africa’s a pretty dry country




    • 13tales says:

      Finally, science has caught up with my long-held dream of eliminating flying pests with lasers. This is a great day.

      What are you doing reading Boing Boing when you could be saving Africa from Malaria?

  7. theLadyfingers says:

    I wonder what happened to the plan to genetically modify the anopheles mosquito to prevent it carrying malaria.

    There was also a plan to introduce huge numbers of sterile female mosquitoes into the wild so the males would waste their efforts.

    Google to the rescue.

  8. ncm says:

    Nathan Myhrvold would like us to think he’s dedicated to good things like eradicating malaria, but _think about it_. He made his fortune in a huge, still operating, extortion racket. His current “Ventures” is another, potentially even bigger, legal-extortion racket.

    Blasting mosquitoes with lasers sounds fun — and almost certainly is — but does absolutely no real good for anybody under threat from malaria. This is a person who thinks extortion is good business. Should BB be helping replace “Myhrvold = extortion” with “Myhrvold = malaria eradication”? He’d like that.

    (That said, I understand there is a particular wavelength of light — probably ultraviolet — that catalyzes the breakdown of chitin, the structrual protein of insect wings and exoskeletons. As a consequence, given the right laser, a remarkably low intensity should suffice to dissolve their wings.)

  9. arkizzle / Moderator says:

    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume that’s fishing-nets, rather than fishnets.

    I swear I had an immediate mental image of women cutting their mosquito nets to appropriate lengths, wrapping them around their legs and sewing up the back, as ‘a stocking..

    Then I remembered Africa isn’t 1940s-Europe, and stockings are not the status symbols they once were.. *sigh*

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Spraying is effective, but there are environmental issues.”
    Actually, DDT is one of the safest and lowest-impact pesticides ever invented (contrary to Rachel Carson’s work of fiction, it doesn’t weaken birds’ eggs). It’s also extraordinarily cheap, and its use in Africa could reduce incidence of malaria to the point of near-eradication.
    But, you know. Unfounded fears about dead birds are more important than children’s lives.
    On the other hand, TED is super cool, and so is killing mosquitoes with lasers. I’d probably buy a mosquito death-ray.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree about DDT. It is so safe that it can be applied directly to the skin. Only too much use (which was widespread) causes problems but then elimination of DDT has killed millions of people due to malaria and replacement of DDT with pesticides that are actually much worse then DDT. Agent Orange is safe too. It was only a by product that caused cancer. 2,4,5 T is a plant hormone. It has also been replaced with more toxic alternatives.

    • JakeTheSnake says:

      Since when has the reputation of DDT been rehabilitated? Are you sure you’re not just making things up? What are your sources? Here’s an example of a counter argument: http://www.awitness.org/column/bedbug_squared.html

      I think you’re a troll.

    • limepies says:

      since when is rachel carson a “fiction writer”? i don’t think you’re a troll, i think you’re just one of those people who doesn’t give a fuck about facts, in order to perpetuate your own reality.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Lasers and moving mirrors blasting things from the sky? Wasn’t that the project that Professor Hathaway was developing for the CIA in Real Genius in 1985?

    • Anonymous says:

      Sounds like Total Annihilation.

      When he mentioned Dewar flasks all I could think of was AKIRA OH GOD HE’S WAKING UP

  12. victorvodka says:

    actually, mosquitos provide mankind a valuable service by keeping them out of the lowlands, thereby increasing their quality of their water and fish supplies. what we really need is a death ray that kills human babies.

  13. Haroun says:

    I red some thing a year or 3 back talking about eradicating malaria & it said DDT was the best thing for it, applied to the walls of the bedroom. The mosquitoes fly in, light on a wall, then go to bite. The wall application delivers the poison in an effective dose w/o getting it into the environment in quantities that will cause thinning of eggshells & all the other nasty stuff. Cheap, safe & effective. The US ruined DDT’s reputation by using it indiscriminately & cause all sorts of problems with it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Even if the technology doesn’t make sense for Africa, I can’t wait to get myself a laser bug zapper.

  15. sic transit gloria C.F.A. says:

    Hmm. A Blue Ray of Death. I wonder wherever he got that idea?

  16. Anonymous says:

    So let me get this straight: African countries that are so poor that they can’t buy antimalarial nets for their citizens are going to spend tens of billions of dollars acquiring millions of Star Wars anti-mosquito lasers.

    This is a serious “let them eat cake” moment. I’m not surprised that Myrvhold – a man who has convinced himself that his patent extortion racket is good for innovation, and who paid millions to commission his own personal (private) working model of a 150 year old computer because hey, why not? – has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the malaria problem. The problem is not that there is not enough cool technology around. The problem is that nobody in the developed world cares enough to buy enough ACT tablets and mosquito nets to stop malaria in its tracks.

    Anybody who knows anything about fighting diseases is familiar with the concept of decreasing marginal returns. In areas with little infrastructure and poor hygienic conditions, the most effective interventions are often the cheapest. Only after an entire country is saturated with mosquito nets and ACT tablets and knows how to use it should we even consider trying to shoot mosquitos down with lasers or filtering the parasites out of the blood. A single day of hemodialysis in the US costs around $100. For that price, 80 people could receive life-saving ACT, or aid organizations could buy 20 pesticide-impregnated mosquito nets. And let’s not even get into the cost of the device itself, or the cost of the infrastructure buildout that would be required to support this approach on a large scale. Even a dollar spent on these devices is indefensible.

    Myrvhold and his ilk ought to be publicly censured. When every child in Africa is protected by a mosquito net, and has instant access to ACT if he/she does get malaria, we can start to talk about anti-mosquito lasers. Until that day comes, all of this tech-wrangling is nothing more than an exercise in smug self-satisfaction.

    • Anonymous says:

      Did you read the article? The laser was the most fun part, but was the last thing after more effective screening and treatment options.

      Sheesh, get over your hate already.

  17. nanuq says:

    There’s nothing magical about DDT. The main reason it isn’t used more extensively (the ban doesn’t apply in most tropical countries) is the fact that widespread spraying would lead to mosquitoes developing resistance to it. And they would. Just like they’re developed resistance to every other insecticide that’s ever been tried.

    • andygates says:

      I hope that mosquitoes won’t develop resistance to frikken’ lazers. That would truly, truly suck.

      Great peace dividend, though, eh? Commoditize it as a dustbin-sized self-contained unit, solar panel on top (some networking kit comes like this now). Set ‘em up near standing water and break the breeding cycle.

      The future is awesome.

    • Xopher says:

      It’s also persistent and toxic. It kills all the way up the food chain. It can sit in your fat cells for decades, and poison you when you lose weight.

      It’s used in the tropics because the toxicity is considered a good tradeoff for the decrease in mosquito-borne diseases…and because the people there don’t have the power to object to the permanent poisoning of their land.

  18. Bill Albertson says:

    Short of wiping out the anopheles mosquito, there will be no likelihood of wiping out malaria.

  19. Scuba SM says:

    If they had a mosquito zapping machine built from off the shelf parts, they should release an open-source version of the plans. I would love to build one for my deck.

  20. WiseUp says:

    If the laser zaps don’t also completely kill the Malaria Parasites, then all Nathan has succeeded at is creating Malaria Rain.

    • Brainspore says:

      If the laser zaps don’t also completely kill the Malaria Parasites, then all Nathan has succeeded at is creating Malaria Rain.

      If those particular parasites could get into your blood that way then they wouldn’t bother traveling by mosquito in the first place.

      • WiseUp says:

        Malaria Parasites can and do enter the bloodstream via skin abrasions or the like. This is why one is supposed to shoo mosquitoes off the skin and not squash them.

        Regardless, Malaria Rain sounds really awful — would you go stand out in it?

  21. Anonymous says:

    DDT is an effective pesticide that can be used to reduce the incidence of malaria when used correctly. It is also a potent toxin that can have all sorts of nasty environmental effects. Harun is right, DDT has great potential as a persistent indoor pesticide, but it’s not the toxicity that does it. DDT is an excellent repellent as well as a pesticide. When used in this manor, mosquito populations don’t develop resistance to it, as it’s not actually exerting selective pressure. It’s just keeping them away.

    The bed nets are a fascinating story though. Not only are they used as fishing nets, the pesticide impregnated ones are used preferentially over the plain ones. I have no idea why.
    Minakawa, Noboru. “Unforeseen misuses of bed nets in fishing villages along Lake Victoria” Malaria Journal 7 (2008):165.

    A better model for the elimination of malaria is Italy. It’s one of the only cases where malaria was once endemic, and has actually been eliminated completely. It was a combination of social and environmental change, widespread access to preventative health care, and massive application of pesticides that did it.

  22. GEM says:

    As much as I enjoy the thought of zapping those pesky mosquitoes, I’d like to know what might happen to the birds and other creatures that consume the mosquitoes. If we create a shortage of mosquitoes, what happens?

    • Aloisius says:

      As much as I enjoy the thought of zapping those pesky mosquitoes, I’d like to know what might happen to the birds and other creatures that consume the mosquitoes. If we create a shortage of mosquitoes, what happens?

      I once thought of using lasers to lower the pigeon population, but then no one wants to see pigeons randomly fall out of the sky.

      I also thought of a system to stop sharks from attacking humans by seeding the ocean with small machines carrying vials of human blood that would squirt out in random spots and cause aggressive sharks to go after it, only to waste tons of energy to get to a place with no food.

      I was never mad enough to actually implement either of these idle ideas because who knows what the long-term effects would be? Apparently killing off insects is totally ok though.

    • Anonymous says:

      More humans live.

  23. Ito Kagehisa says:

    what we really need is a death ray that kills human babies.

    Oh, we already have lots of those. Most of them shoot very chunky and interupted rays composed of lead, but they kill human babies just fine, and they aren’t solving the problem you mentioned. Something more creative than simple violence will no doubt be required.

  24. iamanumlaut says:

    I have a Death Star model begging to be used as a housing for a laser mosquito zapper.

  25. Osprey101 says:

    Yeah, nothing like DDT to get the right all worked up. China, India, and Mexico crank out as much as they want- India alone has a capacity of over 10,000 metric tons/year- but the problem is that skeeters ’round the world have developed resistance to the stuff. We’ve known this since 1959, when DDT resistance was first detected in Anopheles culifaciens in 1959. Countries didn’t stop using it because we told them to, or we stopped paying for it- they stopped using it because it stopped working. It’s just not an effective solution anymore.

  26. Anonymous says:

    What in the name of all that is holy and scientific is an ORGANIC PHOTON?


    All of you buying “organic” food, YOU let this happen. You officially killed the word organic. It doesn’t mean a thing anymore.

  27. Anonymous says:

    From people in the biz, I hear the problem isn’t usually that bed nets are used for fishing or women of the night. The problem is that they aren’t wildly disseminated and there typically isn’t enough infrastructure to make sure they are dipped every year. I think a lazer zapper is an interesting idea, but I’m guessing for the unit price you could buy a lot of bednets and even a few fishing nets if that makes them get used correctly.

    The proposals for returning to DDT typically center on peridomestic mosquitos and only spraying around houses, which is not the same thing as spraying everywhere, like last time. You could argue that it is ineffective for mosquitos that don’t land in houses. DDT has lots of negative effects, but used properly, I think the arguements against it are about as first-world-hissy-fit as the arguements against genetically modified golden rice.

    Regarding malaria eradication, it gives each generation of professionals concerned with malaria control a headache. However, it was eradicated from portions of the world in the last century. Unfortunately, the high cost, drug resistance, and insecticide resistance meant it was not completely erradicated, thereby allowing it to reinvade. If malaria eradication was impossible, than Americans in the Southern United States would have something more scary than West Nile virus to contend with.

    This fellow’s work is cool (especially the vaccine container) and I know this was supposed to be a short story about this presentation, but it would be swell if Boingboing could get some interviews with big kahunas of public health when they do these stories (Bill Collins for example would give a good interview).

    I think, for example, of the last story about malaria (malaria-in-the-usa-1.html) where I gave a number of corrections: Anonymous #4 21:02 on Mon, Dec. 7. I also think of an earlier piece by Mr. Doctorow regarding influenza where my comments must have been deemed trollish in some way, because he moderated them out of the comments section. This was a nice little piece, and I like boing boing generally, but the public health coverage makes me a little twitchy.

    Thank you for bring this interesting work to the general public’s attention.

  28. The MoMax says:

    DDT can also end up in crops making it impossible for African farmers to sell to EU countries (I believe they test for DDT). Potentially devastating to local economies. But then again high mortality from Malaria is generally bad for the economy.

  29. seanpatgallagher says:

    The first time I ran across an insect death ray was in David Brin’s science-fiction novel “Earth”, circa 1986. As I recall, it was a teenage girl’s solution to Killer bees disrupting her backyard apiary.

    That novel was set in 2050. Apparently, the future came a little earlier than expected.


  30. webmayin says:

    Lasers shooting 100% organic photons? Are we in the dark ages? I seem to recall a war on malaria nearly won by a Dr. Campbell, who was nominated for a Nobel prize in conscripting bats in the war against malaria. Bats, as many of you might know, are some of the happiest mutants on the planet, and comprise near a full quarter of all mammalian species. And they’re mostly happy, and nice to people. Also, they eat mosquitoes. Like crazy. Here’s a link to Dr. Campbell’s tower, that was once upon a time beloved by bats and spectators alike, starting in 1907, (It also eradicated malaria in the region):

  31. peterbruells says:

    Meh. I had that idea well before 1980. Only my laser wold have been carried on the backs of specially bred flying spiders.

  32. Ironic Sans says:

    Lasers that shoot down mosquitoes? I saw that concept 25 years ago. An episode of HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News” featured a fake commercial for a system of lasers that would shoot down flying insects in your home. It was meant to make fun of Reagan’s Star Wars program and I think it incorporated “Star Wars” in its name (although I don’t remember exactly what it was called). That’s the first thing I thought of when I read this.

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