“The notions of security and killing are separating”: Rick Smith, founder of the TASER device, reflects on the future of security

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For Rick Smith, CEO of Axon Enterprise, which specialized in the electric gun 28 years ago, the next five to ten years will be key in the change of paradigm for security. Especially in terms of developing artificial intelligence, drones and robots. The goal is to suffer less deaths. And it may just start in 2022.

By Lola Breton 

In spite of the pandemic that kept most people home for several months, 2020 was a record year for gun violence in the United States. According to the non-profit organization Gun violence archive, almost 19,400 men and women died of a firearm shot there last year – without counting suicides. One would say that the United States is too much of a specific case to be taken as an example. In fact, Amnesty international estimates that five hundred people are killed by a firearm each day on the planet. 

Yet, “all the research done on the matter points out that the amount of violence in the world has dramatically decreased in the last years”, insists Rick Smith, from the headquarters of his company in Arizona. The American entrepreneur founded his security company, TASER International – now rebranded as Axon –  in 1993 with the goal of “making the bullet obsolete”. And he is correct. The data shows that we deplore much less deaths in armed conflicts in the 21st century than we used to. 

The rise of the smartphone and social media lets us see what is happening in the world. Our level of connectedness has increased while our tolerance for violence has lowered”, points out Rick Smith. This might explain why violent outbursts and confrontations seem more present nowadays. “I am in my office in Arizona but if there were a school shooting in Miami, Florida right now, 3,000 kilometers away, I would know instantly.”

The end of killing”

As we prepare to enter a new year, full of electoral expectations and political tensions in France and in several other major countries all over the globe – including a midterm election in the American congress – security is bound to be a key subject. It could also be an issue if tensions arise amidst citizens. 

In 28 years of being CEO of a security company, Rick Smith has never stopped working on bettering security equipment and weapons to decrease the number of deaths due to armed confrontations. 2022 will not be an exception. “There is an historical way of thinking that the more a weapon is dangerous the more it’s effective. But I am sure that if we had a non-lethal weapon that was as effective as guns without killing, it would be more used than firearms”, believes the CEO who finds inspiration in science fiction.

Rick Smith started his company after a personal traumatic experience with guns. “Two of my friends were killed in an argument in the parking lot of a golf resort when I was in high school”, he shares. “The man who killed them is now spending his life in prison. He probably did not want to kill anyone that day. And if he had had the choice to bear a non-lethal weapon weapon, then, he would have, I am sure”, believes Rick Smith.

Axon’s CEO is convinced that the “social acceptance of using lethal weapons is low”. Unfortunately, it does not keep gun violence from happening everywhere. The recent events in Marseille, last summer, showed France how firearms were indeed very much used in drug-related issues and settling of scores between groups of citizens. To Rick Smith, that is why “the end of killing” – as he named his book, released in 2019 – should start with the police and the military. 

The goal is that police forces can protect the citizens and make them feel safe without killing others. “We are getting to a point where the notions of security and killing are going to be separated.” However, he concedes : “Today, no non-lethal weapon is as good as a police pistol.” 

It is changing. More and more police institutions use TASER devices all over the world. “Our goal, by 2030, is to make it as reliable as a gun”, explains its founder. Of course, some situations will always call for a more traditional response. A terrorist attack, for example, could not be apprehended solely with tasers, however efficient.

The policy challenges around AI are going to be enormous”

In the next eight years, the company plans to invest around ten million euros of its own R&D budget to enhance the electric tool. “It is nothing compared to what we invested in the beginning, because all the technology we need already exists or is about to”, Rick Smith explains. 

The technology he thinks of relies a lot on artificial intelligence. “We could increase the number of shots fired by a TASER device. For now, it can fire up two shots consecutively when a police pistol can fire seventeen in a row.” Rick Smith would also like to develop a camera to put into those electric weapons to stabilize them, aim better and hit the target. And AI could be used in many other ways in terms of security, “to read license plates and, eventually for face recognition”. “But there are privacy issues to consider beforehand. And the policy challenges around AI are going to be enormous”, recognizes Rick Smith. “This is why we need to start having those conversations well before the technology is ready!”

The next years are thus going to be moments for policy building, as well as technology perfecting in the field of security concerning AI, but also the use of drones or robots. If companies must invest their budget in R&D for this purpose from now on, states must have these conversations despite – or within – the electoral rounds. “I don’t think the world is ready to adopt AI, robots, and drones as assistant of the police work just yet”, says Axon’s CEO. But being able to send reconnaissance to assess the risks for the forces to enter a place and face a suspect, would help officers make more considered decisions while taking less risks to attempt to their lives and others’.

The transition is not going to be a moment in time. It is a gradual shift. And in the here and now, we already have some great advancements, with national police forces adopting body cameras for more transparency for example.” Rick Smith is convinced that “Europe will likely lead the world in the transition because of the historical link of Americans with handguns”. 2022 might well be the year for European nations to take this into account and start paving the policy way towards strengthened security tools and strategies.