By MATT O’BRIEN and MICHAEL BALSAMO
Taser developer Axon said this week it was working to build drones armed with electric stun weapons that could fly into schools and “help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook or Columbine.” But his own tech advisers were quick to call the idea a dangerous fantasy.
The publicly traded company, which sells Tasers and police body cameras, last year pitched the idea for a new police drone product to its Artificial Intelligence Ethics Committee, a group of experts. respected experts in technology, policing and privacy.
Some of them expressed reservations about arming drones in over-policed communities of color. But they didn’t expect Axon to announce Thursday that it wants to send these Taser-equipped drones into classrooms to prevent mass shootings by immobilizing an intruder shooter.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith said he felt compelled to go public with the idea after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. saying he was “catastrophically disappointed” with the response from the police, who did not intervene to kill the suspect for over an hour.
But he stressed on Friday that no product had been launched and that any potential launch would be imminent. The idea, he felt, needed to be shared now because of the public conversation about effective ways for police to safely confront abusers and how schools can increase safety.
“It’s an idea that should come into the public consciousness while our minds are open to it and I felt that if I wait another six months the world will change and people will forget about this pain and we’ll see a shift in feelings where people are going to focus a lot more on what could go wrong, rather than the pain of this issue that we need to fix,” he said.
Axon’s stock price rose on the news. But the announcement angered members of the ethics committee, some of whom are now likely to resign in protest.
“This particular idea is crazy,” said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor who serves on Axon AI’s ethics committee. “Drones cannot fly through closed doors. The physical properties of the universe still hold. So unless you have a drone in every classroom in America, which sounds crazy, the idea just won’t work.
Friedman said it was a “dangerous and fantastic idea” that went far beyond the proposal for a Taser-equipped police drone whose board members – some of whom were former or current police officers – had debated in recent months.
“We begged the company not to,” Friedman said of the company’s announcement. “It was unnecessary and shameful.”
The idea for the product had been around at Axon since at least 2019, and the company was scrambling to figure out if a drone with a Taser was even a feasible idea. Over the past year, the company has created computer-generated artistic renderings to simulate a product design and conducted an internal test to see if Taser darts – which deliver an immobilizing electric jolt – could be fired from a flying drone, Smith said. He added that he had discussed the possibility of developing such a product with the ethics committee.
Board members who spoke to The Associated Press said they were taken aback by the proposed school drone — which they were only made aware of earlier this week — and concocted a unanimous statement of concern outlining Axon’s decision as “deeply regrettable”. The company tweeted the board’s dissent shortly after announcing its own statement on Thursday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were any resignations,” said another member of the ethics committee, Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “I think every board member has to decide if they want to stay involved.”
Both Friedman and Calo described this week’s process as a sharp reversal of the respectful relationship that Axon executives have had with the board in recent years over controversial topics such as facial recognition – which Axon decided not to use in its body cameras – and automated license plate readers. .
“Sometimes the company takes our advice and sometimes it doesn’t,” Friedman said. “What is important is that this happens after thoughtful discussion and coordination. It was thrown out the window here.
Smith said the company is still in the very early stages of product development and will continue to consult with the ethics committee, as well as law enforcement, community leaders and school officials. He acknowledged that the company may later determine that the idea is not feasible and abandon it.
But he disputed the idea that he had ignored the concerns of the ethics committee, which is supposed to provide advice and share feedback. Ultimately, the decision still rests with Smith as the company’s chief executive.
“I didn’t ignore what they said. People can have debates and disagree,” Smith said. “I think there’s one thing the world can see: our board of administration is not whitewash.”
“I hope they don’t quit,” he added. “I hope they are maybe a little bit proud after that that we have this public debate.”
Friday in an “Ask Me Anything” chat on the Reddit online forum. Smith acknowledged that “drones in schools might sound crazy,” but then answered detailed questions about them. They could pass through the school’s air vents, he said, and perch on doors and walls near ceilings. It might be a “good thing” if a gunman tried to shoot one down, as it would distract from trying to kill people.
“We do this because we care about ourselves,” Smith said. “We’re a business, so ultimately we have to find a financial model that works, but ultimately we’ve been successful because our mission drives our business and we solve problems that we care about. “, he added.
Smith told a Reddit user that Axon was “absolutely not” trying to capitalize on recent tragedies to attract investors. He noted the advisory board’s disagreements, but said the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas — and what he described as misguided proposals to arm teachers with guns — forced him to going public with the drone idea to showcase a “much wider range of voices”.
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