March 9, 2010
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.
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.