Firm proposes Taser-armed drones to stop school shootings: NPR

This photo from Axon Enterprise shows a conceptual design using a computer-generated rendering of a taser drone.

Axon Enterprise, Inc. via AP

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Axon Enterprise, Inc. via AP

This photo from Axon Enterprise shows a conceptual design using a computer-generated rendering of a taser drone.

Axon Enterprise, Inc. via AP

Taser developer Axon said this week it is working on building drones armed with the electric intoxicating weapons that can fly into schools and “help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook or Columbine.” But his own technology advisers soon regarded the idea as a dangerous fantasy.

The publicly traded company, which sells tasers and police cameras, last year brought the idea of ​​a new police drone product to its Artificial Intelligence Ethics Council, a group of respected experts in technology, policing and privacy.

Some of them expressed reservations about weaponizing drones in over-guarded communities of color. But they weren’t expecting Axon to announce Thursday that it wants to send those Taser-equipped drones into classrooms to prevent mass shootings by immobilizing an intruding gunman.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith said he felt compelled to make the idea public after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, saying he was “catastrophically disappointed” by the response. of the police who did not. not come in to kill the suspect for more than an hour.

But he stressed on Friday that no product had been launched yet and that a possible launch would be on the long run. The idea, he said, needed to be shared now because of the public conversation about effective ways for police to confront attackers safely and how schools can increase security.

“This is an idea that should come into the consciousness of the public as 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’re going to see a shift in sentiments.” where people are going to focus a lot more on what could go wrong, rather than the pain of this problem that we have to solve,” he said.

A member of the ethics board calls the idea “dangerous and fantastic”

Axon’s stock price rose with the news. But the announcement angered members of the ethics council, some of whom are now likely to quit in protest.

“This particular idea is insane,” said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University who serves on the Axon AI Ethics Board. “Drones can’t fly through closed doors. The physical properties of the universe still hold true. So unless you have a drone in every classroom in America, which seems insane, the idea just isn’t going to work.”

Friedman said it was a “dangerous and fantastic idea” that went well beyond the Taser-equipped police drone proposal that board members — some of them former or current police officers — had been debating in recent months.

“We begged the company not to do it,” Friedman said of the company’s announcement. “It was unnecessary and embarrassing.”

The product idea has been kicked around at Axon since at least 2019 and the company is trying to find out whether a drone with a Taser was a viable idea at all. In the past year, the company has created computer-generated art renderings to mock a product design and conducted an internal test to see if Taser darts — which emit an immobilizing electric shock — can be fired from a flying drone, it said. Smith. He added that he had discussed the possibility of developing such a product with the ethics council.

Board members who spoke to The Associated Press said they were surprised by the school drone proposal — which they learned only earlier this week — and forged a unanimous statement of concern that described Axon’s decision as “deeply regrettable.” The company tweeted the council’s dissent shortly after its own statement in a Thursday announcement.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were layoffs,” said another member of the ethics board, Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “I think everyone on the board has to make a choice whether they want to stay involved.”

This week marks a shift in the relationship between the ethics council and Axon executives

Friedman and Calo both described this week’s trial as a sharp reversal of the respectful relationship Axon executives have had with the board in recent years on 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. “It is important that this happens after good consultation and coordination. That has been 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 board, along with law enforcement, community leaders and school officials. He acknowledged that the company could later determine that the idea is not feasible and abandon it.

But he disagreed with the idea that he had ignored the concerns of the ethics committee, which is meant to provide advice and share feedback. Ultimately, the decision still falls to Smith as CEO of the company.

“I haven’t ignored what they’ve said. People can debate and disagree,” Smith said. “I think there’s one thing the world can see: our sign is not a whitewash.”

“I hope they don’t resign,” he added. “I hope they might be a little proud that we’re having this public debate after this.”

On Friday, in an “Ask Me Anything” chat on the online forum Reddit, Smith acknowledged that “drones in schools can sound crazy” but went on to answer detailed questions about them. They could travel through the school’s vents, he said, and sit on doors and walls near ceilings. It could be a “good thing” if a shooter tried to shoot one, as it would distract from trying to kill people.

“We’re doing this because we care,” Smith said. “We are a business, so ultimately we have to find a financial model that works, but in the end we have been successful because our mission is the driving force behind our business and we solve problems that we care about,” he added.

Smith told a Reddit user that Axon was “definitely 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 publicize the drone idea to create a “many wider range of voices”.

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