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President Trump: Issue an Audacious Challenge To Stop School Shootings

by Rick Smith, CEO & founder of Axon

Published on

Another school shooting. Another fractious debate. Another round of news cycles, with well-meaning people on both sides pressing their case.

What will result? If history is any guide, very little. Both sides will exhaust themselves arguing and lobbying, and they will, in all likelihood, fight to a draw. There is an alternative approach, though—one that history shows us could lead to new and innovative solutions to old and intractable problems like school shootings.

In the early 2000s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was vexed by a problem straight out of science fiction: could you create a car with no human driver?That kind of “self-driving car” technology had obvious military applications, but leaders at DARPA could sense its wider civilian applications as well.

Out of that question came an audacious idea: the DARPA Grand Challenge, a $1 million prize authorized by Congress to anyone who could build a car that would drive itself from Barstow, CA, to Primm, NV. Over the next year, hundreds of engineers, companies, weekend tinkerers, and university researchers competed with each and built and tested vehicles. Fifteen finalists were selected, and on March 13th, 2004, 15 autonomous cars set off into the California desert.

Fresh thinking – exactly what the problem of gun violence in schools needs.

Not a single car made it all the way to Primm, but DARPA saw what was obvious to everyone who competed: the Grand Challenge spurred a great deal of innovation in a very short time – and importantly, it drew many people the world over into the effort. So DARPA decided to double the prize and run the competition again. One year later, a team from Stanford University took home $2 million when its vehicle completed the assigned course in a little over six hours. The Stanford team was the fastest of five that finished the race.

That Stanford technology was acquired by Google. A few years later, the innovations and discoveries born in that desert led to the first successful tests of autonomous vehicles on American streets. Today, every single car company in the world is working to build its own version of these vehicles. And we can trace all of that back to DARPA's Grand Challenge.

As Lt. Col. Scott Wadle, DARPA’s liaison to the U.S. Marine Corps, put it, “That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, off-road racers, backyard mechanics, inventors and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem. The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.”

Fresh thinking – exactly what the problem of gun violence in schools needs. That’s why I'd propose that the President of the United States call for and Congress authorize a similar effort targeted at gun violence in schools: a $5 million prize and the launch of the first-ever Grand Challenge on School Safety.

I have some experience with challenges of this kind leading to innovations we can't anticipate. Ich habe ein Unternehmen gegründet und führe ein Unternehmen, das unter dem Namen Axon weniger letale Abwehr- und Verteidigungsgeräte fertigt, unter anderem den TASER Elektroschocker. That company originates in a government-backed challenge issued at the highest levels: Die von President Lyndon Johnson einberufene Sonderkommission für Strafverfolgung empfahl unter anderem, dass die Strafverfolgungsbehörden sich nach besseren und wirkungsvolleren nicht letalen Waffen für den Einsatz bei öffentlichen Unruhen umsehen sollten. Ein Wissenschaftler namens Jack Cover kündigte seinen sicheren Arbeitsplatz bei dem Apollo-Mondprogramm und stellte sich der Herausforderung – und nach kurzer Zeit wurde das am Körper getragene TASER Distanz-Elektroimpulsgerät geboren.

Technology can often offer solutions where politics and policy do not. Private industry, universities, research institutes, national and military labs, and even weekend researchers – all may have an approach to the problem of gun violence in schools that hasn’t been considered, an idea that hasn’t been tested, a solution that doesn’t involve the changing of laws, or even the changing of minds. Those entities and individuals just need the right incentive and competition. They need a challenge.

The time for such a challenge is now. Die Technologie für die Wahrung der öffentlichen Sicherheit hat sich rasch weiterentwickelt. Angesichts jüngster Entwicklungen im Bereich künstlicher Intelligenz, Drohnen, hochentwickelter Sensorik und nicht letaler Abwehr- und Verteidigungsgeräte, könnte auch eine hochtechnische Lösung für das Problem der Amokläufe in Schulen in greifbare Nähe gerückt sein. 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.

This is a problem that, everyone agrees, requires action. And taking the step of announcing a Grand Challenge on School Safety is an action that can be supported by everyone. It's a break in the debate, a truce, a path forward for the country that could help us build the tools that ensure that no more children have to die in a schoolhouse, while still respecting the rights that many hold dear. 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 – and maybe, just maybe, help us avoid a news cycle like this in the future.