A weaponized AI system intended to protect students has been grounded.

What’s new: Axon, which makes law-enforcement equipment such as tasers and body cameras, canceled a plan to sell remote-controlled drones capable of firing electroshock darts to incapacitate attackers at schools, businesses, and other public places. The company, which had announced the taser drone in early June, shelved it days later after the majority of its independent ethics board resigned in protest.

How it works: The canceled flier, which was based on the company’s existing Axon Air surveillance drone, was to include a camera as well as a taser. A human operator would decide when to fire its electroshock projectile.

  • The company’s CEO Rick Smith estimated that 50 to 100 drones would equal the cost of a single armed security guard, he said in an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit held on the day the ethics board members resigned.
  • In his book The End of Killing and a graphic novel of the same name, Smith explains that the drone would launch automatically when an AI-enabled microphone detected the sound of gunfire. In addition, the system would alert on-site security, administrators, and local law enforcement.
  • Nine members of Axon’s ethics board released a statement opposing the plan, saying it “has no realistic chance of solving the mass shooting problem” that has afflicted U.S. schools in recent decades. They criticized the drone’s surveillance capability in particular, stating that it “will harm communities of color and others who are overpoliced, and likely well beyond that.”

Behind the news: Axon’s announcement came about a week after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Texas. It was the 27th school shooting with casualties in the U.S. in 2022.

Why it matters: The U.S. public is divided on how to address an ongoing epidemic of gun violence, with a majority calling for greater safety regulations that would limit who can own a firearm. The opposition, which believes that gun-control measures violate rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution, favors solutions like armed guards and surveillance — proposals that align with Axon’s canceled drone.

We’re thinking: Technological countermeasures are appealing in the face of repeated attacks on schools, workplaces, hospitals, and other public spaces. However, research argues against increased security in favor of better safety regulations. Axon should have consulted its ethics committee before announcing the product, but it did the right thing by canceling it afterward.

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