Taser-Drone Developer Axon Faces Newly Published Criticism F…

In June 2022, nine members of weaponized drone maker Axon Enterprise’s ethics board left their posts after the company chose to move forward with a Taser-equipped drone project they had recently voted against. Now, the company is facing new criticism from the resigned advisors this week, as its inaugural TASERCON conference for law enforcement kicked off, featuring sessions such as “Weapons of Mass Construction” that promote the use of police technology.

The nine former members have disclosed the reasoning behind their objections for the first time in a new report, arguing that misuse of drones that are equipped with stun guns could violate the civil rights of overpoliced communities. Published on Tuesday in collaboration with the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, the report detailed plans by Axon, an Arizona-based company and developer of the Taser, to combat threats such as mass shootings with drones containing “non-lethal energy weapons.”

Authors included Barry Friedman, a co-founder of the Policing Project; Miles Brundage, head of policy research at OpenAI; and Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They listed some potential outcomes from police using Taser-drones, such as increased use of force, dehumanization of targeted individuals and the diminishment of drone operators’ “personal moral culpability.” In the past, Axon has compared the use of its drones to the way that sprinkler systems aid firefighters.

Ryan Calo, a former Board member and report author, and a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said in a statement that rules governing the use of drones by police are long overdue. “Citizens and residents, not industry or law enforcement, should decide what sort of roles robots can play in local communities. The alternative is to sleepwalk into science fiction.”

Axon established its independent AI Ethics Board in 2018 to provide expert opinion on the community impacts of its technology. In recent years, tech giants from Meta to Google have created their own ethics committees, especially around the consequential topic of AI, causing some skeptics to ask whether these companies are engaging in “ethics washing” to avoid broader scrutiny.

This marks the first announcement from the nine former members since they resigned en masse after Axon announced it would pursue the Taser-drone in defiance of a majority vote against the stated project by the ethics committee. The board had reviewed the drone proposal, known internally as “Project ION,” for a year before determining that it should only be piloted in a limited capacity by police; they never studied its use in schools.

But shortly after — one week after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last June — Axon’s founder and CEO Rick Smith declared it would begin developing the drone for use in schools across the country. “Today, the only viable response to a mass shooter is another person with a gun,” Smith said at the time. In their report, former board members claimed this was a breach of Axon’s promise to consult them on any such decision. Elaborating on their resignation in a June 2022 statement, the members said that “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. We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.”

Axon eventually pressed pause on Project ION three days later, citing public criticism and debate. However, the report claimed that Smith has since begun engaging educators, policymakers and the public during roundtables meant to gauge support for Taser-drones. Last September, Smith told Protocol that Axon has “been doing a lot of work on public acceptance.” This appeared to be the case at TASERCON, where 13 sessions centered around Taser technology and its benefits.

When contacted by Forbes about the status of Project ION, an Axon spokesperson said they were not available to provide comment, and instead provided an unrelated press release about the launch of a “new Taser energy weapon.”

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