TED lecturer exploits African women + children

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.

Oh. My.

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. Wired covered Mhyrvold’s gadget, as did the New York Times, The Atlantic, and scores of bloggers, Twitterers and Facebook users. (“I want one!” wrote one typical enthusiast.) Malariologists were called out from their labs and clinics by eager reporters wanting a comment on how Mhyrvold’s invention might finally save the world from malaria.

One, the Dutch malaria expert Bart Knols, got it right when he called Myrhold’s invention “ridiculous” and its promotion as an anti-malaria device “unethical.”  In fact, it is worse than that. Mhyrvold used the very real suffering of African women and children from malaria to garner attention for himself and his gee-whiz gadget that won’t make a lick of difference in their lives. It’s the very definition of exploitation.

Worst of all is the disservice this kind of gimmickry does to the campaign to counter malaria. The real challenges in taming malaria hardly ever make it into headlines. Mhyrvold’s anti-malaria invention did. But what’s his message? That new technology and cool gadgetry–Intellectual Ventures’ raison d’etre–will solve the problem?

I mean, really. Saving African women and children from malaria doesn’t require new research into cool gizmos. What we need to do is find the political will and funding to implement all the old research that we’ve already done. Like distributing bednets, and cheap drugs. Building health clinics. And roads. Maybe it’s boring. Maybe not the best fodder for a flashy TED presentation. But it’s the only reasonable way forward.

Myhrvold and his mosquito death-ray in action at TED:

View a high-def video of a mosquito being zapped by Intellectual Ventures’ laser system.

A Groen Brothers spoof on the whole idea:

ABOVE: Photo of Nathan Myhrvold’s TED presentation, courtesy of Flickr user jurvetson / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Juan Walterspiel MD says:

    Needed – how long does the pesticide last on nets – on differnt kinds of material ? – effective “active” duration on net – with / without sunhine, moisture ? close to a light bulb ? rain on it ? can kids suck and chew on it ( small kids do this with everything they can get into their mouth – does it come out, when the net is washed ? the net burns ? smoke from it toxic ?( candles / firewood / kerosene burners could ignite ) – reimpregranting – how ? where ? exposure to pesticide doing it ? how much goes into the drain and where does the drain go to(to raise resitant mosquitos ? pop up in breastmilk ? ) is the pesticide biodegradable ? — assume this is well studied and the answers re-assuring – Nathan Microsoft may volunteer for a search and present.

  2. Juan Walterspiel MD says:

    The video on the bug laser is realy funny – no doubt it is possible – but in real life you do not want accidental laser shots on your or your curious children’s retinas, and if you aerosolize the buzzers you may finally get some viruses into your lungs – dengue, west nile, hepatitis B – chikungunya, endless …,with flies – did you know where they just ate ? e.coli (hemolytic uremic s ) salmonella, shigella, campylobacter
    ( Gullain Barre ) etc see whether aerosol infection works … ?

  3. Thanks for calling this to public attention. Some things really go underreported. How absurd!

  4. Amanda Montei says:

    “I mean, really. Saving African women and children from malaria doesn’t require new research into cool gizmos. What we need to do is find the political will and funding to implement all the old research that we’ve already done. Like distributing bednets, and cheap drugs.”

    You really hit the nail on the head, Sonia. I spent a season in East Africa and was stunned to see local citizens suffering unnecessarily from malaria, while western tourists (myself included) carried around preventative drugs and sprays, slept under mosquito nets, and all the while had the cushion of curative medicines easily accessible. We already know what works, and it’s quite cheap.

    Why invest in these hokey gizmos? It’s distracting, upsetting, and selfish– business as usual. Oh, the illusion of progress.

    Malaria No More seems to be doing a good job of encouraging the public to donate a small sum for nets/prevention.

  5. Juan, the most commonly used insecticide for treated bednets are from the pyrethroid class. The most long-lasting nets last around 5-10 years or so. Unfortunately, pyrethroids have been used in African agriculture for some time now, so mosquitoes have already developed some resistance to it! It seems, also, that resistance to DDT (which is widespread) may confer resistance to pyrethroids, too. But it does stick to the net and doesn’t seem to have much enviro impact, unlike DDT and cousins. So far as i know…Amanda, I agree MNM is doing a great job raising money for nets…the question will be whether people will use them and whether, in the end, malaria mortality actually goes down as a result! it works in clinical trials but real life as usual is more complicated….

  6. Anyone who believes this system is actually going to help the women and children of Africa have a serious Let-Them-Eat-Cake neurosis!

  7. I had to double check the date on this post. For a second, I thought it was April Fools Day, or I had accidentally landed at The Onion. You really can’t make this stuff up.

  8. wilbur larch says:

    Myhrvold is a venture capitalist in venture capitalist’s clothing. He is no more to blame than are private for profit health insurance companies are for denying insurance to sick or poor people, its what they do. They are all trying to make a buck (billions of). The people to blame are people like (Go Red) Bono and The Gates Foundation minders who push these ideas via the Neo Liberals like POTUS etc. Thats whom we have to watch out for (for the African women and children).
    Similar projects, male circumcision to prevent HIV, Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer in Rick Perry’s home town etc etc.

    Dr. Wilbur larch

  9. Wilbur, you’re right. Mhyrvold is a venture capitalist so when he tries to get attention for himself and his inventions, he’s doing what we should expect him to do. But he IS still being unethical and exploitative–just not hypocritical.

    When private insurers seeking to turn a profit turn away sick, poor people, or when drug companies focus on expensive medicines for rich people, they are not doing anything surprising, either. Such practices are fundamental to their business model. But, like Myhrvold, they then pretend they are saving us from illness out of the good of their hearts! This is an unethical, exploitative practice, imo.

  10. Julia Tew says:

    Re: “Myhrvold is a venture capitalist in venture capitalist’s clothing. He is no more to blame than are private for profit health insurance companies are for denying insurance to sick or poor people, its what they do.”

    Of course he is to blame for his own actions. Because he is honest about his actions does not excuse him of wrongdoing. If I commit murder and fess up, identify myself as a murderer, it does not relieve me of blame for taking life. Calling a spade a spade does not set things right.

    As for whether or not we ought to expect him to behave better, I think yes. I think we ought to always expect, and demand, that all humans behave ethically. Simply identifying oneself as a jerk does not eliminate the responsibility we all carry for our fellow humans.

  11. Wow! Thanks so much for shining a light on this. Technology isn’t always the answer and I appreciate you analysis.

  12. wilbur larch says:

    Yikes! I was not implying that Myhrvold is blameless, merely that it was the nature of the beast. Here is the actual quote from the mother of all beasts, “few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible”. That was Milton Friedman.
    If I remember other TED awardees had similar credentials. May be Ms should focus on the Right Livelihood Awards, they are the real cool.

  13. Mary Elizabeth Kelley-Bibra says:

    Hello, Sonia, are you familiar with the article “Eradicating Malaria Using Ancient Chinese Remedy – Using Artemesinine Combination Therapy (ACT) in the Comoros Islands” (3 April 2009 by Sanjiva Wijesinha)? This is available online as a PDF (but the link is too long to put in here – just google it). Also Aljazeera English (AJE) broadcast a program last year in their “101 East” series on this very subject. This program “Malaria – Finding a Cure” can be viewed online directly. Here’s the link:

    I hope that you find it as interesting as I did. All the best to you!

  14. My sons went to Africa to help build schools for orphanages one summer a few years ago.

    Lasers killing misquitoes? Yeah, right. Exploitive and ridiculous, but obviously newsworthy to the gadget are life world. In a place where help was about making bricks one at a time by hand and a daily meal was fly attacked mush, Mhyrvold’s pretense is more than disturbing.

  15. A good lesson from this article is that don't rely too much on all development of new technology, the human sense is also a big part of technology developement. You need to make a clear cost benefit analysis before you make the final decision of what is best for the people.

  16. In 10 years time if the technology is cheap enough maybe a laser system could work, for now though all that is needed to save lives from malaria is mosquito nets.

  17. What a nice try,,,,but I think though the work was that amazing and really drag media attention, it seems that everybody here agree that the issue of malaria in Africa will be more effectively solved not by new gadget innovation but by serious consideration of the problem itself.

  18. Whoa, it’s getting a little intense in here.But all of this feedbacks doesn’t necessarily mean what he did was all nothing but a failure. This would give him a chance to upgrade his invention. Maybe at this time he were just wrong on choosing Africa as the people would benefit much about his stuff. In some other areas it might be helpful.

  19. In addition, its no wonder why he receives a tremendous feedbacks from critics and on here. If he only make it thinking the capability of the people of Africa, he maybe receives more applause even he made it not as sophisticated as what he did.

  20. Moreover, he just thought of the praises on his works maybe, draw much attention and give an applause. But for me, he would just be successful if his magnificent invention could really help African people. If he really thought about this little people, then there is no reason to call it unethical, but if not, then he deserves to be called that names.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] We spoke earlier with Sonia Shah writes about science, medicine, and international politics. She is the author of “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,” (2010), “The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients” (2006) and “Crude: The Story of Oil” (2004). Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The Lancet, Yale’s e360, and elsewhere. Shah was born in 1969 in New York City to Indian immigrants. Growing up, she shuttled between the northeastern United States where her parents practiced medicine and Mumbai and Bangalore, India, where her extended working-class family lived, developing a life-long interest in inequality between and within societies. She holds a BA in journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience from Oberlin College, and lives with molecular ecologist Mark Bulmer and their two sons Zakir and Kush. We started by discussing her recent Ms article on TED lectures and Malaria [...]

  2. [...] and corporate interests. In a recent article for Ms. magazine, for example, Shah explains how Microsoft millionaire Nathan Myhrvoid characterizes malaria in African countries “to wrap his business in a cloak of moral urgency.” “Every 43 [...]

  3. [...] will be cut up into a wall divider or fishing net or wedding veil–is nothing like the silly mosquito-zapping laser I wrote about in March. No, the insecticide-treated bednet is an intervention known to slash [...]

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