Company dropping plans to equip drones with tasers
Taser manufacturer Axon on Sunday dropped recently announced plans to develop drones equipped with stun guns aimed at addressing school shootings, a project that prompted the resignations of most of the company’s AI ethics board.
Nine of the 12 policing ethics experts who sit on the board said in a statement on Monday that they were caught off-guard by the decision and had weeks earlier recommended against a pilot study to explore the concept, arguing that the surveillance would “undoubtedly” harm communities of color and “others who are overpoliced.”
Axon had announced the remote-controlled Taser drone concept on Thursday in the wake of a string of mass shootings, comparing the technology’s potential to mitigate school shootings to sprinklers suppressing a fire.
“Rushing ahead to embrace use of surveillance-enabled, Taser-equipped drones, especially when its Board was urging against unnecessarily precipitate action, is more than any of us can abide,” the board members said. “We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.”
Axon CEO Rick Smith had said the concept “could help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook or Columbine,” references to some of the deadliest school shootings in the United States. But Smith paused the project three days later to engage with “key constituencies.”
“We have a lot of work and exploring to see if this technology is even viable and to understand if the public concerns can be adequately addressed before moving forward,” Smith said in the statement.
He called the mass resignation of Axon’s ethics advisory panel “unfortunate” since the company hadn’t directly heard their questions, but Smith acknowledged the company moved quickly following the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead last month.
“We respect their choice and will continue to seek diverse perspectives to challenge our thinking and help guide other technology options that we should be considering,” Smith said.
The nine departed board members said the body had voted 8-4 to recommend against a narrow pilot study to vet Axon’s Taser-equipped drone concept a few weeks ago. Axon’s proposal included a “sweeping” degree of surveillance that had “no realistic chance” of solving mass shootings, they said.
The members who resigned include professors, a privacy attorney and employees at nonprofits studying policing.
“After several years of work, the company has fundamentally failed to embrace the values that we have tried to instill,” the board members wrote.