Nine Axon AI Ethics Board members resigned following Axon's announcement last week that it will build drones equipped with Tasers and real-time surveillance to tackle mass shootings.
Comprised of experts in artificial intelligence, computer science, privacy, law enforcement, civil liberties, and public policy, the 13-member board advises the company on the ethical implications of its products. The nine members resigning are Wael Abd-Almageed, Miles Brundage, Ryan Calo, Danielle Citron, Rebekah Delsol, Barry Friedman, Chris Harris, Jennifer Lynch, and Mecole McBride.
According to a statement released by the resigning board members, Axon intends to develop Taser-equipped drones, pre-position them in potential targets for mass and school shootings, and encircle those targets in surveillance cameras with real-time streaming capabilities.
Weeks before, the board voted against a proposal by Axon to develop Taser-equipped drones and run a limited pilot program with law enforcement, deciding the risks outweighed the benefits.
"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," the board said.
The former board members claim they "pleaded" with Axon to pull back, but the company "charged ahead" in a way that struck several of the board members as "trading on the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings" and "bypassed Axon's commitment to consult with the company's own AI Ethics Board."
According to Protocol, an Axon employee warned Friedman last Tuesday that the company was forging ahead with the plan, and that the board had about 48 hours to respond. Board members "repeatedly" pushed the company not to go forward, Friedman told Protocol. Despite the board's disapproval, Axon pushed ahead and announced last Thursday that it had formally begun the development of the TASER drone system.
Announcing the product, Rick Smith, Axon CEO, tweeted, "I am done waiting for others to solve the problem...So we're going to solve it," and "Now is the time to make this technology a reality—and to begin a robust public discussion around how to ethically introduce non-lethal drones into schools. We will #StopShootings."
In a statement to Protocol, Smith said, "I understand and agree with the board's concerns that there are many questions we will need to answer to ensure these systems are designed for maximum safety and with equity in mind. That's the exact reason why I decided to go public: to broaden the discussion with many stakeholders." During a Reddit ask me anything session on Friday, Smith rejected the idea that Axon is pitching the product as a way to profit from the recent tragedies.
For years the board warned Axon against the use of persistent real-time surveillance in its products, according to the resigning board members. "Yet, Axon has proposed a degree of surveillance that is sweeping. This type of surveillance undoubtedly will harm communities of color and others who are overpoliced, and likely well beyond that. 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," the statement reads.