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3/16/2009
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YouTube Mosquito Death Ray Spoof Now Real Research Project

A former Microsoft CTO and an astrophysicist who worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative are collaborating on a system that kills mosquitoes with lasers to prevent the spread of malaria.

"Starwars Mosquito Defense System," a commercial spoof about an anti-mosquito laser system, launched the careers of Dutch video makers Simon and David Groen in 2005. It can still be seen on YouTube.

As if to demonstrate the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction, the pair's satire is now being developed as a serious research project by some of the scientists who actually participated in the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, derisively known as "Star Wars."

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the project has been dubbed "WMD: Weapon of Mosquito Destruction." It aims to kill mosquitoes with lasers to prevent the spread of malaria, which mosquitoes can transmit.

The anti-mosquito laser system is being funded by Intellectual Ventures, a company run by Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former CTO.

In an essay in Seed Magazine last month, Myhrvold wrote, "Our current approaches to combat the disease are low-tech: bed nets, sold or freely given; spraying or soaking bed nets in insecticide; spraying and draining water in breeding sites. Although these approaches work, they could work better with new technology."

While at Microsoft, Myhrvold reported to Bill Gates, who, through the Gates Foundation, has made significant funding contributions to the fight against malaria.

To the delight of cynics who relish the association of Microsoft and bugs, Gates, at the Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference in February, released several mosquitoes into the audience as part of a speech against malaria, quipping, "There is no reason only poor people should have the experience."

The idea for the WMD system was proposed in 2007 by astrophysicist Lowell Wood, who worked on the SDI and with atomic bomb scientist Edward Teller.

Wood is working with Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist who used to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and other researchers to develop their anti-mosquito laser system. They hope to be able to deploy the system to shield villages against mosquitoes.

"The original notion came up in discussion between Lowell Wood and Nathan Myhrvold," said Kare, program manager at Intellectual Ventures and the project's lead inventor, in a phone interview. "They had been talking to Bill Gates about his interest in addressing malaria as a global health problem, and Lowell suggested there should be a way to apply some of the high-technology techniques developed to destroy larger targets."

Kare began working on a prototype in October 2006, he said, when he joined Intellectual Ventures full time. The mosquito-killing laser was the first project for the company's internal lab.

Kare said that some of the hardware used for the prototype came from eBay and from DoveBid, an industrial auction site. "Both Nathan and I like buying things at auction, we bought a lot of hardware cheap," he said, noting that he purchased a $10,000 scanner for the project for $500.

Kare said that "WMD: Weapon of Mosquito Destruction" isn't a term used internally to refer to the project. He calls the project "the Photonic Fence." "When we're being lighthearted, we call it 'the bug zapper,'" he explained.

As its name suggests, the Photonic Fence prototype consists of two posts that direct laser fire at mosquitoes that fly between them. Kare said the research team is still optimizing its targeting algorithm. "But we definitely can detect them and aim a beam at them," he said.

When that happens, the mosquitoes literally get toasted.

"That's very satisfying but it's a little wasteful of laser power," said Kare, noting that systems in the field will probably try to conserve power. "The real goal for us is to hit them just hard enough to prevent them from completing their mission -- going on to infect a person -- which doesn't mean you have to kill every single one of them immediately."

Kare said that while "the defenders of mosquitoes are few and far between," he nonetheless receives e-mail expressing concern that killing mosquitoes indiscriminately could harm the overall ecosystem. He stressed that the project's goal isn't to eliminate mosquitoes entirely, but he added that as far as he has been able to determine, there's no creature that would be significantly harmed by a decline in the mosquito population in a limited area.

"Even if we don't zap the mosquitoes, just detecting and categorizing insects turns out to be very high value," he said. "Being able to do that in real time ... is pretty high value for combating malaria."

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