Axon’s Taser Drone Plans Prompt AI Ethics Board Resignations

A majority of Axon’s AI ethics board resigned in protest yesterday, following an announcement last week that the company planned to equip drones with Tasers and cameras as a way to end mass shootings in schools.

The company backed down on its proposal Sunday, but the damage had been done. Axon had first asked the advisory board to consider a pilot program to outfit a select number of police departments with Taser-drones last year, and again last month. A majority of the ethics advisory board, which comprises AI ethics experts, law professors, and police reform and civil liberties advocates, opposed it both times. Advisory board chairman Barry Friedman told WIRED that Axon never asked the group to review any scenario involving schools, and that launching the pilot program without addressing previously stated concerns is dismissive of the board and its established process.

In a joint letter of resignation made public today, nine members of the AI ethics board said the company appeared to be “trading on the tragedy of recent mass shootings” in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. Despite mentioning both mass shootings in a press release announcing the pilot project, Axon CEO Rick Smith denied allegations that the company’s proposal was opportunistic in a Reddit AMA. Smith said a Taser drone could still be years off, but that he envisions 50-100 Taser drones in a school, run by trained staff. Ahead of Axon pausing the pilot project, Freidman called it a “poorly thought-out idea,” and said that if the idea is unlikely to come to fruition, then Axon’s pitch “distracts the world from real solutions to a serious problem.”

Another signatory to the resignation letter, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo, calls Axon’s idea to test Taser drones in schools “a very, very bad idea.” Meaningful change to curb gun violence in the United States requires confronting issues like alienation, racism, and widespread access to guns. The deaths of children in Uvalde, Texas did not happen, Calo says, because the school lacked Tasers.

“If we’re going to address the prospect of violence in schools, we all know that there are much better ways to do that,” he says.

The board expressed concern that weaponized drones could lead to increased rates of use of force by police, especially for communities of color. A report detailing the advisory board’s evaluation of a pilot program was due out this fall.

The real disappointment, Calo says, isn’t that the company didn’t do exactly what the board advised. It’s that Axon announced its Taser-drone plans before the board could fully detail its opposition. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the company decided to just abandon that process,” he says. “That’s why it’s so disheartening.”

He finds it tough to imagine that police or trained staff in a school will possess the situational awareness to use a Taser drone judiciously. Even if a drone operator successfully saved the lives of suspects or people in marginalized or vulnerable communities, the technology wouldn’t stay there.

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