Cute Force, Not Brute Force: The Gnomes Are Coming!

Mosquitoes are a problem, but what can you do about it?

If you can’t just screen them off, then you’ll need poison: insecticide. Insecticide is a dumb technology in the sense that it can’t discriminate between different types of insects, and also in the sense that you have to put it everywhere the mosquitoes might be, since you don’t know where they are. In other words, you need too much to have enough. But dumping loads of poison mostly in the wrong place kills lots of beneficial insects too. And because poisons build up in the environment, you end killing much larger animals too. You’re whacking the ecosystem with a baseball bat. Brute force.

But suppose you could hire some clever gnomes whose job was to listen for mosquitoes, and then shoot them dead with tiny crossbows whenever they came near? Assuming these gnomes are good at their job, you wouldn’t need too many of them to make a big difference. Instead of ladling gallons of neurotoxin indiscriminately across everything in the neighborhood (children, pets, garden vegetables, honeybees), you just deploy a few mosquito-sniping gnomes in strategic locations. Instead of brute force, call it cute force.

What I want to tell you today is that the gnomes are coming. The Photonic Fence, though still in early development, is a real thing. It promises to bring you a sharp-shooting cohort of pesticidal gnome-bots. Cameras can spot the mosquitoes, and low-powered lasers can then shoot them from the sky like tiny anti-aircraft cannons.

The big idea behind cute force is simple: smart, cheap devices that can identify and eliminate whatever is undesired (like killing bugs) or retrieve whatever is desired (like picking fruit). And it’s all being enabled by cheap AI and robotics. Compared to what they can replace, gnomes are (or soon enough will be) cheap. Doing things cleverly and one-at-a-time scales better than you think. You’re going to start seeing gnomes everywhere.

The brute-force approach shows up a lot in agriculture. Consider the problem of weeding. To get rid of the bad plants, the current strategy is to kill all plants. On a conventional farm, this is done with a broad-acting plant poison called Roundup (glyphosate). Organic farms can’t use Roundup, but look what they do instead.

It may seem a little medieval, but they literally scorch the earth with propane torches to kill all plants. This meets the guidelines for organic farming, although it’s clearly not great for the atmosphere. Either way, you’re wiping out everything in your path, with significant collateral damage.

Suppose instead you could hire some clever weeding gnomes who knew the difference between good plants and bad plants? There are dozens of companies working on exactly this problem. Some of them use lasers. Some use robotic arms. Some use spinning string-trimmers. Some still use herbicide, but 95% less of it because it gets applied exactly where it’s needed. The breakthrough products haven’t arrived yet, but they will. The tech is getting cheaper every day. Robots never need to sleep, and they can eliminate the need for tons of expensive and dangerous chemicals. Once you start thinking about problems like this, you see them everywhere.

Here’s a Dutch company killing moths with drones. Or why not detect and zap cancerous cells one at a time in the bloodstream to prevent metastasis? Or how about building smart nets that only catch the kind of fish you want? And then there is, of course, the topic of warfare, which is more or less defined by the concept of eliminating undesirable things. Explosives are the ultimate expression of brute force. Why be so wasteful and destructive if you can just land a small killbot drone in exactly the right place? On a less grim note, you wouldn’t need to force all cars to get (easily evaded) emissions inspections every year if you had a reliable network of gnomes who could quickly detect and ticket offending vehicles on the roads.

The gnomes are coming! Some of them are already here. You can even buy this little green garden gnome today to patrol your pepper patch.