Jersey shore town taps AI gun detection in hopes of thwarting mass shootings

ByLauren Lantry ABCNews logo
Friday, September 8, 2023
Ocean City taps AI gun detection in hopes of thwarting mass shootings
Ocean City taps AI gun detection in hopes of thwarting mass shootings

OCEAN CITY, New Jersey -- With decades of failed attempts at gun reform amid the frequency in mass shootings, some have sought alternative solutions through artificial intelligence.

The Ocean City School District in New Jersey, as well as the city's boardwalk, have implemented new technology developed by ZeroEyes, a company that says it uses AI, paired with human experts, to scan camera feeds for guns.

"I don't think anybody should question or be fearful of an artificial intelligence program that's going to identify an immediate imminent threat of someone being shot or killed. You can't put a price tag on saving a life," Jay Prettyman, the police chief in Ocean City, told ABC News.

Prettyman said that AI gun detection could also serve as a deterrent from possible crime.

"If we can put something in the place that we can advertise about - that can scare people from coming to Ocean City and coming to any of our schools, and we can push evil off to another day - that's what I think is our responsibility to do for our kids every day," Prettyman said.

Mass shootings have nearly tripled from 2016 to 2022, and there have already been over 480 mass shootings this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

"I'm 100% confident that we are going to have such a fast response compared to not having this system," Prettyman said. "[It] is going to increase the opportunity of our officers to get into that building as quickly as possible and save lives."

It's not just Ocean City that has partnered with ZeroEyes - the company says it has hundreds of clients in over 35 states, including Philadelphia's transportation system SEPTA and the United States Air Force.

ZeroEyes let ABC News into their headquarters outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to watch a demonstration of how their artificial intelligence system works. The company says their alert system- from AI detection to the dispatch of law enforcement - takes less than 30 seconds.

Clients give ZeroEyes access to their security camera feeds, and then ZeroEyes uses its AI technology to constantly scan for any object that appears to be a gun. Once it detects a gun, the company says it will send a screenshot back to ZeroEyes headquarters, where a group of analysts, consisting of former law enforcement and veterans, confirm whether the detection is a real threat or not. If the threat is confirmed, the ZeroEyes analysts dispatch an alert to the client and local law enforcement.

"Fifteen times more people die from gun violence in a given year than they do from fires in a building, but every building you walk into is going to have a smoke detector fire suppression system," ZeroEyes CEO and co-founder Michael Lahiff told ABC News' Ashan Singh. "It's only a matter of time. We're going to have proactive solutions out there for active shooters, mass shootings, gun violence. And ZeroEyes is going to set the bar for that standard."

But experts caution that artificial intelligence is only as good as the data put into it.

"If the data coming into the computer that's using artificial intelligence is flawed or incomplete, the judgments and the analysis created by the computer will be flawed or incomplete as well," said John Cohen, ABC News contributor and former acting undersecretary for Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security.

"If it works right, it can help save lives," Cohen added. "If it doesn't work right, if it creates a lot of false positives. It could actually be a distraction to response efforts and that can mean more lives lost."

According to Lahiff, the company has never sent a false alarm to a client. Lahiff credits this record to the human analysts that double check their AI, who are staffed 24/7, 365 days a year, and the data put into the system.

Lahiff showed ABC News the green screen lab that ZeroEyes has created it says to train their AI. It's a bright green room from floor to ceiling, with hundreds of security cameras at all different heights on the walls. In an attached room, they have an armory of fake guns which they brandish in front of the cameras to help refine what the AI can detect. Lahiff says there are millions of images in their data set.

The wave of AI tools developed for surveillance purposes has raised questions about accuracy, privacy, and bias, as well as calls for regulation. The ACLU has criticized AI technology generally for programming racial biases into systems, especially with facial recognition.

Lahiff says ZeroEyes technology only focuses on guns being wielded dangerously.

"We're not we're not collecting biometric data on people," Lahiff said. "We're not collecting faces or names or anything like that. It's just looking for an object, looking for a gun."

Lahiff says his company isn't a complete solution to the mass shooting problem that the United States faces.

"We're not the cure-all for this," Lahiff said. "You have to have good security and layers."

"Even under the best of circumstances, an artificial intelligence enabled early detection system will only save lives when it's part of a multi-layered security capability," Cohen said. "Schools still need to have active shooter plans in place. There still needs to be physical security in place that prevents or impedes an attacker from gaining access. You're still going to have to have protocols in place to protect potential victims inside the location."

Some experts are mindful of the possible downsides to using technology in this way.

Odis Johnson Jr., PhD, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and the Executive Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, has been researching the effects that AI can have on students. According to his studies, students can feel surveillance, which results in less academic achievements and a lower likelihood of attending college.

"98, 99% of them will never experience school violence, but yet they live under a system in which they're treated as a suspect first and a student second," Johnson Jr. told ABC News.

According to Johnson Jr., there is only one true solution to the problem of mass shootings in the United States.

"The country needs gun policy reform," he said. "And again, this is something that puts the problem of gun violence and mass shootings in the laps of policymakers more so than the public, because the public is in agreement on a large number of ways that we might mitigate access to guns, to people who don't need them, people who would perpetuate or perpetrate no people who would cause issues that will cause harm to others."

For Prettyman, ZeroEyes presents a possibility to collapse law enforcement's response time, which can result in lives saved.

"You can't stop evil," Prettyman said. "You have to do the best you can to prevent where it's going to happen and be prepared to respond once it does."

ABC News' Nathan Luna contributed to this report.