“Bill Gates Pledges to Reinvent Condom”– Let the jokes begin! Viruses galore! Patches on top of patches! Micro…Soft!
Unfortunately, many of the gripes with a condom spring from… being a condom. From the eye of a systems engineer, the condom is a hack solution. It combines the failures of the Maginot Line with the issues of Dunkirk. The roles of a condom, at root, are:
On either side, a thin polymer layer falls down on the job. When it comes to conception, condoms are post-prostate, but pre-cervix, pre-Fallopian tube. Yet, the role is to stop sperm- not to stop semen. Only sperm will cause conception, yet semen is mostly prostate secretions. Prostate secretions are thus the biological equivalent of jamming; a well-engineered approach should thus come before the prostate… or, possibly, ignore prostate secretions and focus on the sperm, a much more-tractable issue.
We can tackle the issue from the other end, too. At the ovary or Fallopian tube, prostate secretions have been weeded out by the cervix, and its two associated holding chambers that can trap or slow fluids. Meanwhile, sperm numbers have been decimated by vaginal conditions, the bottleneck of the cervix, and the delphic dilemma: half of all sperm will go for a likely dead end. We thus conclude that the strategic points are pre-prostate, or post-uterus (either in, or after the Fallopian tubes). These are the obvious choke points, the points of intercept.
The surface of the penis, on the other hand, is the worst place to deal with the issue- an open area, jammed by unnecessary prostate fluids. It’s a surface particularly open at the base of the condom, a surface open to both sperm and infection.
On the infection front, the surface of the penis is again a bad choice of battleground. A condom attempts to cover the skin, to block infection. Yet, a condom has a narrow window of application, literally and figuratively. One has a brief timespan to apply the condom, via a strict user procedure. Sure, it sounds straightforward. But combine that short opening with the training demands, and any unit commander can see the logistical issue. This is not a recipe for success, this is hit or miss when miss is gonna hurt. Bad strategy.
So, what’s a good strategy? Let’s start fresh. Imagine we could truly redesign the system from the ground up. To open the logistical window, imagine a direct attack: block the sperm pre-prostate. This would be a vasectomy, if vasectomies were acceptable. Most people aren’t looking for permanent sterilization, just the temporary effect. So someone should work on temporary vasectomies, perhaps micromachines that can block each vas deferens. A command could later unblock it.
Okay, let’s fall back from that. Having two robots crammed to the balls doesn’t sell well. Next, perhaps something after the prostate, that defeats sperm but doesn’t stop up the bulk fluid. Maybe a molecular sponge full of concentrated spermicide in the fossa, it would be porous enough to let out liquid. But a liquid full of targeted agent, and hopefully all-dead sperm. The sponge could be inserted even into a flaccid penis. However, the body anticipates this with the Cowper’s fluid. The fluid (“pre-come”) combats residual urine, which is a fair spermicide. Our sponge and its spermicide, then, would have to be truly effective even after dilution. And this wouldn’t do a thing against herpes, warts, etc.
Let’s fall back from even that. If we can’t plug before or after the prostate, at least we can find a truly stretchy material. A super-stretch condom might be applied hours before, without falling off. This eliminates the time window, and thus reduces the odds of user error. A secondary requirement, then, has to be breathability if it’s actually going to be on for hours. This is not as hard as it seems: sperm are fairly large with their beating flagella, so a vapor-permeable layer might work (maybe that’s how it’s super-stretchy). Again, the material would have to block herpes and other infectious agents while passing sweat- quite a challenge.
So, what’s Bill Gates’ deal? He plans to improve condoms by… adding stimulation. By improving feel, men should be more likely to use condoms, but condoms that work (or don’t work) just like they always have (or haven’t). That’s right, his idea is not to tackle the problem head-on, but to improve this hack by… following it with another hack. Hmm, the man behind Windows offering us kitchen-sink engineering? Shocking!
Basically, the condom is a spooge kludge, from a bygone era when people didn’t actually understand the problem. There may be legitimate times when it makes sense (since nothing every really goes away), but it’s also time for someone to think of a transformative technology.