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The CEO behind Taser proposed installing shock-drones to stop school shootings. Most of his ethics board resigned in protest

June 7, 2022, 6:07 AM UTC

In the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting last month, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Texas, the CEO of weapons developer Axon Enterprise (formerly Taser) proposed a radical solution to preventing future mass shootings:

Taser drones.

“Now is the time to make this technology a reality—and to begin a robust public discussion around how to ethically introduce non-lethal drones into schools,” Axon CEO Rick Smith said on Twitter last week, announcing the company’s push into developing drones for schools. 

According to a concept video Smith shared on his Twitter account, Axon’s solution to school shootings would be to install drones in school ceilings, encased in a module similar to a smoke detector, so that they can be dispatched and remotely operated by a trained drone pilot in the event that a teacher at the school activates a panic button.

On Reddit, where Smith held a town-hall style AMA (“Ask me anything”) with the forum users days after Axon officially announced the drone development, Smith mused the drone would be equipped with up to four Taser darts designed to incapacitate the target, and a loudspeaker system to issue demands. In the event that the Taser payload fails to incapacitate the assailant, the drone could be rammed into the target to “physically distract” them.

“Today, the only viable response to a mass shooter is another person with a gun,” Smith said, in an official press release. “We need better solutions.”

But not everyone thinks preinstalling Taser-launching drones in school buildings is a “better” solution to school shootings, including nine members of Axon’s own 12-person A.I. ethics advisory board, who resigned after Smith declared the company was pursuing the novel product. 

“We all feel the desperate need to do something to address our epidemic of mass shootings. But Axon’s proposal to elevate a tech-and-policing response when there are far less harmful alternatives, is not the solution,” the resigning members said in a statement Monday.

Smith has been pushing his controversial drones-in-schools scheme since at least 2019, when the CEO outlined the proposal in his book, The End of Killing. According to their statement, Axon’s ethics advisory panel had voted against the idea of developing shock-enabled drones only a week before Smith decided to press ahead with the idea following Uvalde.

The resigning members also objected specifically to elements of Axon’s proposal that involve installing A.I.-enabled surveillance systems in and around schools to facilitate the drone’s deployment by providing early warning systems and field of vision to the drone operator. 

Axon’s advisory board—which does not have an executive mandate and can be ignored by management—has dissuaded the company from deploying A.I. surveillance systems before, such as rejecting a proposal to equip police body cameras with facial recognition technology.

“After several years of work, the company has fundamentally failed to embrace the values that we have tried to instill,” the resigning board members said. “We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.”

Following the pushback, Smith announced Sunday that Axon was “pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward.”

“Our announcement was intended to initiate a conversation on this as a potential solution,” Smith said. “It is unfortunate that some members of Axon’s ethics advisory panel have chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions.”

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