Where’s Our Laser-Shooting Mosquito Death Machine?

By
Nathan Myhrvold said he was making just that in 2010. We’re still waiting. Photo: Bobby Doherty

It’s hard to think of an upside to mosquitoes. Malaria is perhaps one of the most deadly diseases in human history. Then there’s yellow fever, dengue, and West Nile, not to mention Zika, a tropical-zone also-ran, until it began to be associated with horrific birth defects. Scientists suspect that, on balance, mosquitoes don’t contribute much of anything to the ecosystem, other than fending off humans from despoiling rain forests. They aren’t even particularly important to the diet of most of the predators that eat them. And so, as we reach new heights of mosquito fear, we’ve devised ever-more-advanced ways to kill them.

Around the yard, there are expensive gadgets, like the propane-powered mosquito trap Mosquito Magnet® Patriot Plus ($329.99), which lures the bugs with a plume of carbon dioxide, then vacuums them up to their doom. On a larger scale, DDT works well. Thanks to nearly indiscriminate spraying mid-20th century, the long-lasting poison virtually eliminated the Aedes mosquitoes in many parts of the world. But it turned out to have those regrettable Silent Spring side effects.

There are even experiments in what only could be called species-cide: Mutant mosquitoes, modified by scientists in various ways to interfere with their reproduction, have already been released in Brazil, China, Panama, and elsewhere. In mid-July, Google’s sister company Verily Life Sciences began unleashing 20 million sterile male mosquitoes into the Fresno County insect dating pool.

Which is to say, the human war on mosquitoes is high-tech, high-concept, and without pity. So why not use anti-missile laser technology against them too? That, at least, is the thinking of Intellectual Ventures Laboratory outside Seattle, which has built a contraption that can locate, target, and zap mosquitoes out of the air with invisible lasers. I know because I watched it massacre 25 of the suckers, picking them off, one by one, as they fluttered about with frustrated instinctual menace inside a foot-square Lucite box (they could smell the CO2 I was emitting and wanted to get at me). It’s called the Photonic Fence, and when eventually deployed, it will kill any mosquito that attempts to cross it.

Watching this highly calibrated tabletop “lethal demonstration” at the geek-cave offices of Intellectual Ventures, which has backed the development of this military-grade science-fair project for eight years, is, as you might expect, enormously satisfying. There is the laser itself, aimed by a mirror that is synced to a camera that identifies the pest marked for death based on its shape and size and the distinctive beat of its wing, and a monitor that allows you to watch its autonomous targeting. And it does so fast: 100 milliseconds is the time allotted to see the bug and shoot it for the 25 milliseconds it takes to kill it. For added drama, at least in the lab, each tiny, abrupt death is accompanied by the sound effect of a Star Wars blaster — Feow! Dead. Feow! Dead.

As I watch this bloodbath in a box, filamental bodies begin to clutter its floor. Sometimes, after falling, they get up again, stagger around, dazed, legs quivering, as if searching for a place to hide from whatever mysterious force struck them down. Arty Makagon, the deadpan mechanical engineer who runs the technical side of the bug-zapper project, assures me that they won’t survive long. One of the things the engineers at Intellectual Ventures have calculated, after systematically slaughtering more than 10,000 mosquitoes, is the minimum lethal dosage. Often now there is no apparent laser trauma on the teensy carcass: It is not necessary to gouge a hole in them, or cause their wings to burst into flame, for example. He instructs me to tap on the box’s walls to get the last few mosquitoes aloft and into the target zone. Feow! Dead.

The world’s most overengineered bug interdiction system is a project of Nathan Myhrvold, who, since he retired from his job as chief technical officer of Microsoft Corp. in 1999, has dedicated himself to a madcap array of sophisticated world hacks. Myhrvold co-founded Intellectual Ventures (IV) in 2000 as an invention skunk works, a quasi-personal lab where the geek mind is allowed to think big and roam free. He unveiled the zapper a decade later, at a TED talk in 2010, pitching it as a futuristic tool to help fight malaria, which his friend and former boss, the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, had taken on as one of his causes. IV set up a division called Global Good for those collaborations. (It made a superinsulated vaccine storage unit, for example, which is very useful in disease-ridden places without electricity.)

At TED, Myhrvold presented the mosquito-targeting Photonic Fence with deft nerd showmanship, explaining how it was typical of his company’s “dramatic, crazy, out-of-the box solutions.” And the demonstration he gave, which included slow-motion skeeter-snuff films, gave the impression that the fence would be coming soon to protect the human population from this age-old menace.

This was six years before Zika abruptly scaled up and mosquito panic became pitched high enough that there was talk about bringing back DDT. But oddly, even within that context of anti-mosquito mania, the Photonic Fence went unmentioned. A TED Talk and then, silence. Mosquitoes flit about the planet seeking our blood, unconcerned by this weapon out to get them.

I first met Myhrvold and his dedicated zapper team at IV earlier that day at their unmarked suburban offices, which overlook a highway, as if something too important to be disclosed was taking place there (and there might be: Myhrvold’s sympathies with the operations of the national-security state were clear in his 2013 essay Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action). There’s no sign, but there is a gigantic silver bulb of a Van der Graaf generator out front. Inside, it’s a stem candy land, with a working Tesla coil dangling from the lobby ceiling. The Wi-Fi network is named Raptor.

“It’s true that this is kind of an odd thing,” Myhrvold admits when I meet up with him at the lab. He talks in a raspy, ecstatic-pedant singsong, occasionally slamming his hand against the table to emphasize a point or breaking into a rat-a-tat Don’t you get it? laugh.

He’s wearing a T-shirt, with AT/GC on it in gothic script, separated by a double helix, like an AC/DC T-shirt, which he keeps tugging down over his belly as he squirms in his seat holding forth. (“The letters in DNA are ATGC,” he explains. “Of course, if you write it in the style of AC/DC, people think it is an AC/DC shirt, but then you put the DNA in between. So this is high-ironic nerd humor.”)

In 2008, Myhrvold gathered some of his geniuses-on-file for a periodic marathon brainstorming session — malaria abatement was the topic. Astrophysicist Lowell Wood, who’d worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars), which was supposed to shoot down ICBMs with lasers, suggested using the same concept for bugs.

“And we thought, Nooo, that’s not going to work,” remembers Myhrvold, cackling with the delight that seems to buoy him through his restless life as a 57-year-old multimillionaire polymath. “What we mean by work is that you can do it cheaply and easily. Your cell phone has fancy processors in it for doing graphics and compressing your speech. You can use those and digital cameras. And amazingly enough, laser printers have little digital assemblies in them that steer the laser beam to millions of points on a piece of paper. Which means that all of the pieces to make it work are there, which we did quite quickly; we’ve just been trying to find the right folks to ‘productize’ it.”

Myhrvold’s a big big-idea guy: At Microsoft, in the early 1990s, he would write endless numbers of blue-sky memos predicting where what was then called the “information highway” was taking us, so that the company could make lots more money when we got there. Those ideas helped form the basis of Bill Gates’s 1995 best-seller The Road Ahead, a book so advanced that it came packaged with a CD-ROM (inside, Gates also took the time to explain what a CD-ROM was). Rereading it today, The Road Ahead does a remarkably good job of mapping our digitally disrupted present, where “friction-free capitalism” would upend newspapers and music, advertising and “content” would target us individually, we’d all carry around “wallet PCs,” and electronic shopping — “no bricks, no mortar” — would upend retail.

Myhrvold, who has a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, envisioned Intellectual Ventures as a merchant of ideas, not a producer of products. To finance those ideas, IV would storehouse patents, drawing on both the work of its own global network of researchers and those that it bought elsewhere. The bet was that enforcing its intellectual-property rights would provide a steady income stream, as other companies paid to use IV’s patented ideas in their products. The company started a fund that raised billions of dollars to invest in patents and even floated the idea of patent-backed securities. It now owns nearly 30,000 patents, many of which are used by tech companies, including, yes, Microsoft.

Not everyone appreciated paying for something IV was just sitting on and not “productizing.” The company has often been accused of being a “patent troll,” squatting under the bridge of innovation demanding its tribute to cross; CNET once called it “the most hated company in tech.” Myhrvold defended his patent business in an article he wrote, headlined “Funding Eureka!,” in the Harvard Business Review in 2010, which just so happened to come out the month after his ted Talk on the Photonic Fence. Maybe that wasn’t a total coincidence: Being known as the guy who shoots down malarial mosquitoes with laser beams is, if nothing else, a good way to change the subject.

The only problem was that if you listened carefully, it became clear that the TED demonstration was a little bit faked. Myhrvold swapped the invisible infrared laser used to fry the bugs in tests at the lab for a cool-looking nonlethal green laser pointer that aimed at a Lucite box of mosquitoes across the stage, targeting them for theoretical death. But, since he knew the audience’s insect bloodlust could not be disappointed, he followed up the nonlethal light show with those slow-motion kill videos of the more carefully stage-managed mosquito target practice filmed at the lab. One of the most vivid images was a close-up of an execution in which the mosquito was, it turns out, glued to a pin, disabling flight, to “control variables.” But the TED talk has now been viewed 847,000 times, and the crowd went wild, so it was easy to get carried away with thinking this was coming out soon. “We didn’t dissuade people from saying it’s ready either,” Makagon admits. “Or communicate with people how long it would take.”

And so, over the last seven years, “it got lots of attention,” says Myhrvold. “Lots of people who would kick the tires a little bit,” without actually deciding to invest in it. But despite Myhrvold’s enthusiasm, the Photonic Fence hasn’t been all that easy to actually build. It’s taken years of development to figure out how to continuously track and identify a specific type of insect and then dispatch it safely and efficiently. For instance, for the demonstration, I had to wear protective goggles since that type of laser is not safe for your eyes; I was assured that when it’s market-ready, the laser they deploy will not potentially blind human passersby. And no one has yet worked out how to make the device cheap enough to be useful in the places it is most needed, places where most people’s mosquito-defense system consists of sleeping under nets every night. One possibility is to sell the technology to the Pentagon. “The military is an example of folks who assign people to go to hellholes with lots of malaria and other stuff,” Myhrvold says. “And they’ve become reticent to spray all their people.”

The other option is to modify it to kill other kinds of insects — ones more directly threatening to corporate profits. The Photonic Fence will finally be tested later this summer in Florida, in a screened-in structure, against the Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive bug that is devastating the state’s orchards. So long as it manages to leave the bees alone — the last thing we need is more dead bees — it will then be tested in the open. Myhrvold would also like to try it on the grape phylloxera, which can destroy vineyards. “That’s a high-value thing,” he says, off on another eureka reverie. “Look, if you make $100 bottles of wine, you really don’t want to pull up your vineyard. There’s a lot of flying things which we could kill this way.” Then he tells me about an idea he had to put the lasers on drones to kill swarms of locusts.

Myhrvold does not seem too concerned that his invention still isn’t quite ready for mass consumption. There are too many other things for him to think about. He’s a chef, and the author of the lavish multivolume Modernist Cuisine cookbooks, which use the scientific process to better engineer deliciousness. (The latest one, which seeks to explain good bread, is out this fall.) A few years ago, he was trying to get people to take to his idea of how to mitigate global warming by pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, mirroring the cooling effect caused by large volcanic eruptions. He’s also been testing the theory that the brontosaurus communicated by whipping its tail (upstairs, there is a menacing, fully articulated cyborg-dinosaur tail he had made for this purpose).

And when you look down into the double-height lab from the Modernist Cuisine kitchen, you can see — wait, is that a model of a nuclear reactor? Why, yes. He’s started a company called TerraPower that’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars to try to build a “traveling wave reactor” that could run on uranium 238, which you can’t make a bomb out of. “The last new nuclear reactor built in the United States was about 30 years ago, and companies just didn’t invest in making new designs if nobody was going to build them,” he says. “It’s way more complicated than the Photonic Fence.”

*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Where’s Our Laser-Shooting Mosquito Death Machine?