Rick Smith, the founder and CEO of Axon (formerly Taser), offered a bold new strategy for preventing school shootings on Thursday: approach the problem like a hackathon. In a letter to the President and an appearance on CNBC, he called for a national “Grand Challenge on School Safety,” a DARPA-funded contest where tech companies would compete for a $5 million prize by pitching “innovative solutions” to gun violence in schools.
“I’m a technologist and I believe technology can save lives,” Smith told CNBC. “I don’t think theres enough happening there to move outside of the politics over policy and let’s get into new technologies that could radically change things.”
Explicitly modeled after the DARPA Grand Challenge, which spurred the development of self-driving cars, Smith expanded on his idea in a column on CNBC’s website. “Fresh thinking—that’s exactly what the problem of gun violence in schools need,” wrote Smith. “We may not find the answer in a year, or even two, but the creation of such a prize can call forth our nation’s and the world’s ingenuity.”
While mentioning that Axon had “great ideas” and that a “fantastic school defense system” was possible, Smith offered few specifics on what this anti-school-shooting tech would look like during his CNBC appearance. In his column, however, Smith hinted at a few of the innovations that could make safer schools possible (emphasis ours):
The technology of public safety has evolved rapidly, and with developments in artificial intelligence technology, drones, advanced sensory devices, and non-lethal weaponry, a high-tech solution to the problem of school shootings may be well within our grasp. We do not know what the precise answer will look like, but we do know that asking the question—How do you use technology to stop school shootings?—is a worthy one to ask. If asked at the highest levels of our country’s government, it can bring out the best in innovation.
In both his column and on TV, Smith emphasized the bipartisan appeal of his proposal, writing that such a competition could “build the tools that ensure that no more children have to die in a schoolhouse, while still respecting the rights that many hold dear.”
The Second Amendment debate, however, will always be part of the school shooting conversation, as it should be. And introducing technology as a way of bypassing political debate elides the truth that technology is political—especially when it consists of drones, surveillance devices and “non-lethal” weaponry to potentially be placed in schools.
As the head of a controversial technology company that makes stuns guns and body cameras, Smith should know that. As a potential entrant in this proposed contest, perhaps he already does.