Taser developer Axon said this week it is working to build drones armed with the electric stunning weapons that could fly in schools and “help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook, or Columbine.” But its own technology advisers quickly panned the idea as a dangerous fantasy.
The publicly traded company, which sells Tasers and police body cameras, floated the idea of a new police drone product last year to its artificial intelligence ethics board, a group of well-respected experts in technology, policing and privacy.
Some of them expressed reservations about weaponizing drones in over-policed communities of color. But they were not expecting Axon’s Thursday announcement that it wants to send those Taser-equipped drones into classrooms to prevent mass shootings by immobilizing an intruding gunman.
Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith said Friday that his company was “fired up” after the mass shooting at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school and wanted to vet public views about technology that might help. “We have not launched a product,” he said Friday in an online forum. “We have launched an idea into the public debate.”
Axon’s stock price rose with the news. But the announcement angered members of the ethics board, some of whom are now likely to quit in protest.
“This particular idea is crackpot,” said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor who sits on the Axon AI Ethics Board. “Drones can’t fly through closed doors. The physical properties of the universe still hold. So unless you have a drone in every single classroom in America, which seems insane, the idea just isn’t going to work.”
Friedman said it was a “dangerous and fantastical idea” that went far beyond the proposal for a Taser-equipped police drone that board members — some of them former or current police officials — 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 shameful.”
Board members who spoke with The Associated Press said they were taken aback by the school drone proposal — which they got notice of only earlier this week — and cobbled together a unanimous statement of concern that described Axon’s decision as “deeply regrettable.” The company tweeted out the board’s dissent shortly after its own Thursday announcement.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were resignations,” said another ethics board member, Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “I think everyone on the board has to make a choice about whether they want to stay involved.”
Friedman and Calo both described this week’s process as a sharp turnaround from the respectful relationship that Axon executives have had with the board in recent years on controversial topics such as 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,” Friedman said. “What’s important is that happens after thoughtful discussion and coordination. That was thrown out the window here.”
Axon’s founder and CEO, Rick Smith, said he first shared his idea for using technology to stop mass shootings in a graphic novel he wrote called “The End of Killing.”
“Now my company is working to make the idea a reality,” he wrote Friday in an “Ask Me Anything” chat on the online forum Reddit. Smith acknowledged that “drones in schools can sound nuts” but went on to answer detailed questions about them. They could travel through school vents, he said, and perch on doors and walls near ceilings. It could be a “good thing” if a gunman tried to shoot one down because it would distract from trying to kill people.
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 — compelled him to go public with the drone idea to field a “far broader array of voices.”
“I could not sit idly by and allow the conversation to happen only internally at Axon,” he wrote.
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