How Axon's plans for Taser drones blindsided its AI ethics board

“It scares the living daylights out of a lot of us.”

Axon Taser drone

Axon’s decision to ignore its own handpicked panel of experts’ explicit guidance is an object lesson on the shortcomings of tech companies’ own ethical AI efforts.

Image: Axon

Late Tuesday night, NYU law professor Barry Friedman called an emergency Zoom meeting with members of the AI ethics board for Taser-maker Axon.

Just a few weeks before, the board — which includes academics, civil liberties advocates and two former chiefs of police — had voted against a proposal by Axon to develop Taser-equipped drones and run a limited pilot program with law enforcement. The board had been mulling the possibility of such a pilot for about a year, according to Friedman; ultimately, a majority of the board decided the risks outweighed the benefits.

But on Tuesday, an email landed in Friedman’s inbox from an Axon employee, alerting him that the company was forging ahead with the plan anyway. Not only was Axon going to develop Taser drones, it planned to pitch them as an answer to school shootings, in the wake of the Uvalde tragedy.

The board had about 48 hours to respond. “This came out of the blue,” Friedman said.

“We were told and given two days to react to something very different than something that we had reacted to. And we already said no to it,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at University of Virginia who is also a member of the board. “It scares the living daylights out of a lot of us.”

Friedman scrambled to organize the board’s response and “repeatedly” pushed the company not to go forward, he said.

On Thursday morning, Axon CEO Rick Smith announced his company’s intention to develop Taser drones anyway, sharing a press release in which the board’s earlier opposition was buried about 1,200 words deep. Hours later, after receiving a wave of negative responses, Axon tweeted the board’s full response roundly condemning the decision, which the board submitted after Axon’s public announcement.

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.”

Smith encouraged concerned citizens and lawmakers to engage with the company through the development process, including during a Reddit ask me anything session on Friday. “I want to hear from legislators, public safety leaders, school administrators, and parents and members of the concerned public,” Smith wrote.

But whether the board’s members will stay on to have those discussions remains an open question. Some members are now actively considering whether working with the company is still worth their time. “In the past, we were helpful and listened to and [our] feedback was relevant, and maybe not so much anymore,” Citron said. “Maybe this was a period of time, and it’s not meant to be forever.”

“We’re all having conversations about that,” Friedman said.

Axon’s decision to ignore its own handpicked panel of experts’ explicit guidance is an object lesson on the shortcomings of tech companies’ own ethical AI efforts. Short of regulation or laws governing the use of AI and other forms of surveillance, even the most accomplished advisers ultimately only have so much power to push back against companies’ competing priorities.

In a video explaining the company’s decision, Smith attributed it to the horrors of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, which left 19 children and two teachers dead and 17 others wounded. “When I heard about the latest shooting in an elementary school, I held my kids and my wife, and we cried. That could have been us. It’s so frustrating this just keeps happening,” he said. “So, I’m done waiting for politicians to solve this problem, and we’re going to solve it.”

He described Taser-equipped drones as part of a “three-point plan” to address the scourge of school shootings. That plan also includes sharing footage from cameras in schools with first responders and building VR active shooter training for law enforcement. (In Uvalde, police took part in active shooter training just months before the rampage.)

During his AMA, Smith rejected the idea that Axon is pitching this product as a way to profit from tragedy. “Frankly, there are much easier ways to make money than solving intractable problems like this,” he wrote. “We are engaged out of a passionate belief that we can make technology that is safer, more ethical, and more controlled than today’s solution of adding more people with more guns.”

Citron said she and others had joined Axon’s ethics board because they believed Smith’s ultimate goal is to cut down on shootings with less lethal technology than guns. “I really actually believe him. His end goal is less death by bullets,” Citron said.

And members of the board felt they were making headway in guiding the company’s stance on AI issues, she said, including its commitment not to use facial recognition in body cameras. “That they were interested in hearing our opinions about the kinds of legal imprimatur they should support was gratifying,” Citron said.

It’s been clear to Citron and others, however, that the board’s authorities were limited. That’s by design, Smith said in his AMA. “The purpose of this board is to bring in police-skeptical view points, and our company makes tools for police,” he wrote. “If the board has governing rights over the company, then we would have to make sure the board had a stronger balance of pro-public safety views … which would undermine the very reason for having this advisory board.”

Smith noted that the former police chiefs on the board did support the drone proposal, and he emphasized that the concept is still in the idea phase, not the product phase. “The ethics board will have a say in this decision,” Smith wrote.

But Axon’s dismissal of the majority’s recommendations regarding drones has shaken members’ faith in the board’s overall purpose. Despite their objections, Axon decided to develop this technology not for law enforcement, but for an entirely different and unvetted context: schools. “It’s going to fall on the shoulders of marginalized kids, without question, and couple that with a drone with Taser in a classroom that a kid could hack?” Citron said. “It boggles the mind.”

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