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Rick Smith

CEO and Founder, Axon

Rick Smtih
Rick Smith considers himself a “technology optimist.” When he looked at the impacts artificial intelligence could have on law enforcement, he saw things like paperwork reduction and efficiency.

But when the company he leads as CEO, Axon, acquired a pair of AI startups in 2017, that wasn’t what the world saw. The world saw a future where the government scans people’s faces and constantly tracks their movements; where technological complications lead police into more confrontations with racial minorities.

Smith’s reaction was to listen.

“In discussions with our board members, we realized there are things that could go wrong,” he said. “We could do things that might infringe [on] people’s privacy, and really we can’t just ask the world to trust us that we’re going to just do the right thing inherently.”

So in April 2018, Axon set up its AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, stocked it with experts in civil rights and law enforcement, and asked them to study potential problems with business the company wanted to pursue.

The board doesn’t have voting power over Axon’s decisions, but it can state its opinions without interference.

And its opinions have demonstrably influenced the way Axon does business. When it put out its first report, on face recognition, Axon’s response was to publicly state that it wouldn’t be pursuing the technology — at least while myriad technological challenges make it dangerous to pursue. When the board put out its report on automated license plate recognition (ALPR), Axon recognized that it was in tricky territory there too, and committed to spending a year learning from stakeholders before putting out a product.

When it does come out, Smith said, it will have controls to protect citizen privacy that will give Axon a competitive advantage with police looking to use ALPR.

“As a business, we felt this was one of those win-win situations, where it’s prudent to do the right thing because ultimately we want to build a business for the long haul, and our police customers ultimately report to elected politicians, and they are operating with the consent of the broader society,” Smith said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.