Taser maker Axon Enterprise says it is halting work on a project to equip drones with stun guns to combat mass shootings, a prospect that sparked a mass exodus from the panel, according to a member of its AI ethics committee.
- The company surprised its own ethics committee by announcing a proposal to use Taser-armed drones in schools
- The chief executive said he was disappointed that board members resigned before discussing their objections
- The Ethics Council said it had already voted against a proposal for a Taser-armed police drone
The May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 21 people, prompted an announcement by Axon last week that it was working on a drone that could be remotely piloted by first responders to deliver a taser on a person Fire target up to 12 meters away.
It said the drones could fly into schools and “help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook or Columbine.”
However, the company’s Ethics Council firmly opposed the project, releasing a statement calling the idea a “remarkable expansion” of plans it had already voted against.
Ethics Council member Wael Abd-Almageed told Reuters on Sunday that he and eight colleagues are stepping down from the 12-member board, in a rare public rebuke by one of the monitoring groups some companies have put in place in recent years.
Founder and CEO Rick Smith later announced that the project was on hold.
He said it was unfortunate that some members of the Ethics Advisory Board “decided to withdraw from directly addressing these issues before we heard their technical questions or had an opportunity to address them.”
The shooting of Uvalde led to a public announcement
Axon, which developed the tasers and sells them alongside police body cameras, pitched the idea of a new police drone product last year to its Artificial Intelligence Ethics Committee, a group of respected experts on technology, law enforcement and privacy.
Some of them expressed reservations about the use of drones in monitored black communities.
But they weren’t expecting Axon’s announcement last Thursday that it intended to send these Taser-equipped drones into classrooms to prevent mass shootings by immobilizing an intruding gunman.
In an interview with The Associated Press at the time, Mr Smith said he felt compelled to go public with the idea after the mass shooting in Uvalde and said he was “disastrously disappointed” by the police response, which failed to step in to get the suspect to kill for more than an hour.
He also called plans to arm teachers “misguided” and said he wanted to field a “far broader spectrum of voices”.
But he stressed on Friday that no product has been launched yet and a potential launch is imminent.
He felt the idea needed to be shared as there was a public debate about effective ways for police to safely confront attackers and how schools could increase security.
“This is an idea that should get out into the public eye while we’re open to it, and I felt like if I wait another six months the world will change and people will forget this pain and we’ll see.” Sentiment shift where people are much more focused on what could go wrong than on the pain of this problem we need to solve,” he said.
Axon’s share price rose with the news, but the announcement angered ethics committee members.
“This particular idea is crazy,” said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor.
Professor Friedman said it was a “dangerous and fantastic idea” that went far beyond the proposal for a taser-equipped police drone that board members – some of them former or current police officers – had been debating in recent months.
“We have asked the company not to do this,” Professor Friedman said of the company’s announcement.
“It was unnecessary and shameful.”
The product idea had been floating around at Axon since at least 2019, and the company had been working to determine if a drone with a taser was even a viable idea.
Over the past year, the company has been creating computer-generated art renderings to mimic a product design and conducting an internal test to see if taser darts – which deliver an immobilized electric shock – could be fired from a flying drone, Mr Smith said .
He added that he had discussed the possibility of developing such a product with the Ethics Council.
Board members speaking to The Associated Press said they were surprised by the debt drone proposal – which they only became aware of earlier last week – and cobbled together a unanimous statement of concern, calling Axon’s decision “deeply regrettable.”
The company tweeted the board’s objection shortly after its own announcement on Thursday.
Some board members were expecting resignations, with law professor Ryan Calo saying he wouldn’t be “surprised”.
“I think everyone on the board has to decide if they want to stay on,” he said.
Professors Friedman and Calo both described last week’s process as a sharp turn from the respectful relationship Axon executives have had with the board over the past few years on controversial issues like facial recognition — which Axon decided against using in its body cameras — and automated license plate readers .
“Sometimes the company takes our advice and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Professor Friedman.
“It is important that this happens after careful discussion and coordination. It was thrown out the window here.”
Last week, Mr 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 officials, community leaders and school officials.
He conceded at the time that the company might later decide the idea was unviable and abandon it, but said he hadn’t ignored the board, which should provide guidance.
On Friday, in an “Ask Me Anything” chat on online forum Reddit, Mr Smith conceded that “drones in schools can sound crazy” but went on to answer detailed questions about them.
They could travel through school openings, he said, settling on doors and walls near ceilings.
He said it could be a “good thing” if a shooter tried to shoot you down because it would distract them from killing people.