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Microsoft, Machine Learning, and Better Mosquito Defense


In the face of mosquito-borne threats like Zika, Microsoft joins other tech firms in trying to combat the flying vectors.

Declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization in February of 2016, Zika has so far been detected in 84 countries. In the continental United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 224 cases acquired locally (rather than through foreign travel), 218 of which were in Florida and 6 of which were in Texas.

Though no locally-acquired cases have yet been reported this year, the prime season is underway and the threat remains. In Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, tech giant Microsoft is attempting to use its vast tools to help address the problem.

An element of the company’s larger Project Premonition, Microsoft has developed a series of smart mosquito traps that Harris County Public Health’s mosquito control director calls “1,000 times better” than traditional traps. Though still prototypes, the devices do a whole lot more than just trap insects.

Using sensors that can differentiate insects based on the flapping of their wings, the traps are able to ignore irrelevant bugs and snap shut when they detect Aedes aegypti mosquitos, those that typically act as vectors for Zika. The intelligence of the machine quite literally saves researchers the time of sorting through bugs.

The traps are comprised of 64 chambers with their own doors that trap the insect in question. The development of the devices is a work in progress, according to a Microsoft release detailing them. The machines need to hone in more specifically on their targets. Using extensive wing-flapping data, a machine learning algorithm will help inform the smart traps when to snap the doors shut.

Other sensory data transmits weather conditions like temperature and humidity, with the goal of modelling conditions in which such mosquitos are at their most active.

A recent Reuters report details how other tech companies are diving into the world of mosquito defense, some through the development of mosquito-sorting machines. Robots that sort insects are perhaps not the most glamorous example of how tech can address global health situations, but they are fascinating in their own right. Verily, a California-based company, uses algorithms to sort male and female mosquitos. Paired with another company, MosquitoMate, the mosquitos they produce and released are laced with a bacteria that renders them infertile.

According to Reuters, a study on that process is due later this year.

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