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

Here's my round up of highlights from the second day of the TED 2010 presentations. My head is abuzz with all the thought-provoking ideas I learned today. (Here's yesterday's roundup.)

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Inventor Nathan Myhrvold, of Intellectual Ventures had the most entertaining presentation of the day: a mosquito death ray. It's part of a plan to eradicate malaria and it's being funded by Myhrvold's former boss, Bill Gates.

First Myhrvold showed off a container that can keep vaccination medicine cold and fresh for six months. The old way — a styrofoam cooler with ice — keeps the medicine cold for just four hours. The new container loses less than 1/2 watt. It's similar to a cryogenic dewar, with the same kind of insulation. But this one works like a Coke machine, vending out vials one-at-a-time so warm air never gets inside the container.

Next, malaria. Every 43 seconds a kid dies of malaria in Africa. What can we do about it? Spraying is effective, but there are environmental issues. There's not an effective vaccine yet. Bed nets are effective, if you use them, but people use them for fishnets instead, and it won't make malaria extinct.

So Myhrvold and his colleagues have invented several technologies to fight malaria. First is a little gadget to make an automatic malaria diagnosis. It doesn't draw blood. It looks at the whites of eyes or through fingernails for the presence of hemozoin, which is produced by the malaria parasite.

They are also developing a system that filters out the parasites in a patient's blood, like a dialysis machine, but this one relives the parasite load.

Myrvold's invention company has a supercomputer they like to use for modeling. They're using it to figure out the most most effective malaria eradication technique. He showed a map of Madagascar, with every road and village, and rain and humidity information (which tells you if you have standing water for mosquitoes to breed). It displays a heat map of malaria. It waxes and wanes as seasons change from wet to dry. "We want to eradicate malaria thousands of times in software before we do it in real life."

Now the fun stuff: Shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers. ("A pinkie-suck idea.") It can be built with consumer electronics — a Blu-ray player has a blue laser, a laser printer has fast-moving mirror. You can use them around clinics. The shoot 100% organic photons. You can measure wingbeat frequency and size the of flying insect and decide whether it is worth killing. Moore's law makes technology so cheap we can decide whether or not to kill a bug.

They have one here, built from parts purchased on eBay. They are using a green laser pointer instead of a killing laser, for safety reasons. We see a box of skeeters being tracked and zapped. We hear the mosquito wingbeat.

He ends the presentation showing a high-speed, slow-motion, super-close-up video of mosquitoes getting blasted out of the sky in mid-flight. A wisp of smoke curls up with each zapped mosquito. "This is very satisfying." Here are some videos.

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27 million human beings live on Earth as slaves. Kevin Bales is leading the effort to end the contemporary slave trade.

He's the co-founder of Free the Slaves, an organization dedicated to ending slavery around the world in 25 years. I liked his optimism.

In the early 1990s, Bales was at a public event and he picked up a leaflet about slavery. His first reaction: "No way." As a sociology professor, he had never heard of modern slavery and so he didn't believe it. But he did a literature review and found 3000 articles about slavery. Two were about contemporary slavery. He continued researching and started visiting countries with the highest density of slavery: africa, india, eastern europe. "This is real slavery — not bad marriages or jobs that suck. These are people who cannot walk away without being killed. They don't get paid." (Only Iceland and Greenland have no slaves.)

The recipe for slavery: civil wars and ethnic conflicts create destitute people. The absence of the rule of law — allowing thugs to use violence with impunity — turns destitutes into slaves.

The effects of slavery, beyond the obvious human suffering: it's hurting the planet. Slaves are used in destructive, poison-spewing work that ruins the environment.

Here's how to become a slave: live in a country where lawlessness prevails. Have no way to work. Have children who are starving. Eventually man will drive a pickup truck into your village and say: "Want a job? Get in the truck." The guy will look sketchy and you will be suspicious but you get in the truck, because there's no other option. You'll be taken away and ordered to perform dirt,y dangerous work. You won't be paid and you won't be allowed to stop working. You will come to the realization you are a slave.

Contemporary slavery is the same as old slavery, with an important exception: there is a complete collapse in the price of human beings. Slavery used to be very expensive. Now slaves are incredibly cheap. You can buy one for $5 or $10 in India. If you live in the United States, you'll pay between $3,000 and $8,000 for a slave. In any case, human slaves are like "styrofoam cups. You use them then throw them away."

Perversely, this is good news, because it means the slave trade is not very profitable. Other "good" news: slave labor generates just $40 billion a year. That's the smallest number ever, adjust for inflation. The slave trade is "standing on the precipice of its own extinction." The total cost of sustainable freedom for 27 million slaves is just $10.8 billion. That money cannot be used to buy people out of slavery. That won't work. "Liberation and the work after liberation is the answer." We must learn from the "botched emancipation" of 1865, in which slaves were liberated then dumped, sentenced to generations of violence, poverty, and discrimination.

Ex-slaves are working to free others. "Frederick Douglass in in the house!" For first time in Ghana, three human traffickers were imprisoned for trading in child slaves for the fishing industry.

Are we willing to live in a world of slavery? It's a horrific fundamental violation of our civil liberty. If we can't end slavery, are we truly free?

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Nicholas Christakis at TED2010, Session 4, "Reason," Thursday, February 11, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson


Your genes have a lot to do with your place and behavior in social networks, says Nicholas A. Christakis, a Harvard medical doctor and social scientist who "conducts research on social factors that affect health, health care, and longevity."

Christakis has been analyzing obesity and social networks, looking for correlations. It turns out that obese people cluster together in social networks. Also, you can see clusters of smoking, drinking, altruism, and divorce.

"The network has a memory, it moves, things flow through it. Is has a resilience that allows it to persist over time. It's a living thing."

Emotions, too, flow through networks. When we have emotions we show them and others can read them, and they copy them. They're contagious.

There are different kinds of emotional contagions. One kind is the "punctuated outburst," like a riot. The other kind of emotional contagion spreads over time with larger numbers of people. These "emotional stampedes" ripple through social networks. Christakis found "happiness clusters" and "unhappiness clusters." It's like a patchwork quilt, with happy and unhappy patches, and your happiness depends on what patch you are in.

Here's the difference between the happy and unhappy patches: Unhappy patches are on the edges of networks; happy patches are in the center of the quilt.

Christakis showed a social network with connected nodes, each node representing a person with lines representing links to friends. He pointed out two nodes, each of which was connected to four friends. In one case, the four friends were connected to each other, and in the other case the four friends were not connected to each other. I found his comment about this especially interesting: "Your genes determine whether your friends know each other or not. Some people like to introduce their friends to each other and knit their network tightly. Others like to keep their friends separate.

The connections in a social network defines the nature of the resulting "superorganism." Compare a lump of coal with a diamond. Same atoms, but the pattern of the connections gives them different properties. In a social network, the patterns of connections confer different properties on groups of people. The architecture of ties between people defines the kind of superorganism you are in.

Final thought: Social networks can be used to spread good and bad things, but social networks are fundamentally related to goodness. "If I made you sad or gave you germs, you would cut the ties with me," so those network paths get pruned and the nodes become isolated to the edges. But nodes that spread good ideas, love, and other things of value get more connections.

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Michael Sandel at TED2010, Session 5, "Provocation," Thursday, February 11, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson


Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel started out with a quote from Aristotle: "justice means giving people what they deserve." He gave the example of distributing flutes to people. He asked the audience: "Who should get the best flutes?" The audience shouted out opinions: "Give them to the best players," "the worst players," "distribute them randomly."

Aristotle said the flutes should go to the best players. Why? One audience member said, "We'll hear better music if best players get the best flutes. We will all be better off."

Aristotle's reason was different: We give the best flutes to the best players because that's what flutes are for. To be played well, and we must honor and recognize the best musicians.

Sandel described a court case involving a pro golfer by the name of Casey Martin. He was born with a defect in his right leg that makes it very painful (even dangerous) for him to walk very far. He asked the PGA if he could use a golf cart in tournaments. The PGA deliberated, came back and said "No. That would give you an unfair advantage over the other players who must follow the rules that require them to walk."

Martin sued, saying the PGA's ruling violated the Americans with Disabilities act. Sandel polled the TEDsters: if you were a judge how would you rule? There was a good division of opinion. A woman in the audience, named Charlie, said she would rule in favor of Casey because, "walking the course is not part of the game of golf." Another audience member, named Warren, replied that the "endurance element is an important part of the game." (When asked if he golfed, Warren said, "I'm not a golfer." Charlie fired back, "And I am!")

Sandel described what happened in the case. The lower court brought in golfing greats to testify — Nicklaus, Palmer. They all said that the fatigue factor is an important part of the game and therefore walking is fundamental to the nature of the game. But when the case went to the Supreme Court, the judges ruled 7-to-2 in favor of Casey. The majority of the judges agreed that walking was not part of the essential nature of golf. Scalia dissented, saying it's not posible to determine the essential nature of a game like golf. Since a game has no purpose other than amusement, it is impossible to say if any of a game's arbitrary rules are essential.

Scalia's opinion is questionable: if sports fans thought rules were arbitrary and not designed to bring out the best in the people who played the sports they wouldn't care about the game.

With golf, as with flutes, it's hard to decide what is justice without looking at the essential nature of the activity and what qualities are worthy of honor and recognition. You can look at same-sex marriage through the same lens. Sandel asked the audience whether or not same sex marriage should be allowed (I saw one man raise his hand opposing same sex marriage). People against same-sex marriage consider the nature of marriage to be procreation, and people in favor say lifelong loving commitment is the nature of marriage.

Sandel's conclusion: A way towards mutual respect is to engage directly with each other's deepest moral convictions. This will restore democratic discourse.