In the fight against killer mosquitoes, humans are not just relying on technology for the solution. They’re bringing in artificial intelligence and robots. Specifically, the California-based life sciences company Verily—owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet—has been working with public health teams on a bold and ambitious “Debug Project”. The plan is to use anti-mosquito technology via technological innovations—even AI—to fight off Aedes aegypti mosquito populations in Florida Keys and Fresno, CA.
The female mosquitos of this species are the ones that bite and carry a range of viruses—like dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and the deformity-causing Zika virus. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) called Zika a global health emergency. While the majority of reported cases in America stem from patients who traveled to various locations and were bitten by mosquitoes there, Texas and Florida have cases, which were caused by local mosquitos. Thus, for fear of future outbreaks, these two states opted to become testing grounds for cutting-edge mosquito fighting technology.
Verily’s Anti-Mosquito Technology: ‘Mosquito vs. Mosquito’ Solution
Wired reports that Verily releases up to 100,000 live male mosquitos in Fresno every single day and that they will do so until December this year. These Aedes aegypti males are meant to mate with the female of its species and infect them with the bacteria they are carrying: Wolbachia. Wolbachia renders the eggs unable to hatch, thereby crippling the growth of the mosquito population.
To achieve this feat, Verily transformed one of its buildings into a breeding area for mosquito larvae. Reports said robots watch over the factory and ensure that optimal conditions are set for their 150,000 guests. Larval-rearing robots are in charge of the feeding cycles and monitoring growth. A very critical step in this process is the gender-sorting of the mosquitos. The company cannot risk having a bacteria-infected male breed with an infected male, because then the eggs will be able to hatch—and that defeats the purpose of the whole million-dollar exercise.
The process of generating Wolbachia-carrier mosquitos was first patented by University of Kentucky entomologist Stephen Dobson. As an expert in his field, Dobson can naturally tell the males apart from the females. However, it would be impossible for the scientist to sort all of the mosquitos by eye in such large-scale operations. Nonetheless, reports say Verily worked with Dobson to create a two-step process to sort the mosquitos by gender using advanced computer vision technologies. The opportunities for this project extend beyond the United States. The company wants to be ready to ship out an army of sterile male mosquitoes whenever the disease strikes any corner of the globe.
Microsoft’s Smart Trap in Texas
Not to be outdone, Microsoft has created its own anti-mosquito technology to isolate and capture Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The “Smart Trap” is as large as a birdhouse and utilizes infrared sensors and robotics to slam the door shut once it recognizes the shadows cast by the insects’ beating wings. The trap, which has 64 chambers, is equipped with machine learning and cloud computing capabilities—thus, allowing the trap to seal itself shut when the said species of mosquitoes are caught. Microsoft Engineer Ethan Jackson is said to have developed this anti-mosquito technology. The device saves scientists time and offers researchers more perspective on the behavior of mosquitoes. The traps were tested in Harris County, including Houston, and authorities said the traps were 85 percent accurate.
While completely different, the two anti-mosquito technology methods are inherently better than the old solutions of fumigation and using insecticides to kill mosquitoes and their eggs. While the programs are not cheap, these are very tangible examples of how automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are changing the world for the better!