Axon has paused work on a project to build drones equipped with its Tasers. A majority of its artificial intelligence ethics board quit after the plan was announced last week.
Nine of the 12 members said in a resignation letter that, just a few weeks ago, the board voted 8-4 to recommend that Axon shouldn't move forward with a pilot study for a Taser-equipped drone concept. "In that limited conception, the Taser-equipped drone was to be used only in situations in which it might avoid a police officer using a firearm, thereby potentially saving a life," the nine board members wrote. They noted Axon might decline to follow that recommendation and were working on a report regarding measures the company should have in place were it to move forward.
The nine individuals said they were blindsided by an announcement from the company last Thursday — nine days after 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas — about starting development of such a drone. It had an aim of "incapacitating an active shooter in less than 60 seconds." Axon said it "asked the board to re-engage and consider issuing further guidance and feedback on this capability."
Axon CEO Rick Smith suggested the drones could be deployed as a measure to prevent mass shootings. As Reuters notes, he envisioned drones being stationed in school hallways and having the ability to enter rooms through vents. The drone system, which Axon suggested might be ready as soon as 2024, would have cost schools around $1,000 per year.
The system would have tapped into security camera feeds to detect active shooter events using both human monitoring and artificial intelligence. While a human operator would have made the final decision on whether to fire a Taser, Axon planned to develop "targeting algorithms" to help them with "properly and safely aiming the device."
"This type of surveillance undoubtedly will harm communities of color and others who are overpoliced, and likely well beyond that," the resigning board members wrote. "The Taser-equipped drone also has no realistic chance of solving the mass shooting problem Axon now is prescribing it for, only distracting society from real solutions to a tragic problem. 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."
Those board members said that before Axon made its announcement, they urged it to "pull back" on the plans. "But the company charged ahead in a way that struck many of us as trading on the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings," they wrote. "Significantly for us, it bypassed Axon’s commitment to consult with the company’s own AI Ethics Board."
Smith said that the goal of the announcement was to start a conversation about the use of drones equipped with Tasers as a possible solution. "I acknowledge that our passion for finding new solutions to stop mass shootings led us to move quickly," Smith said in a statement. "However, in light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward."
The AI ethics board has had previous success in convincing Axon to change course. In 2019, the company said it wouldn't use facial recognition in its police body cameras after the board expressed concern about the plan.