MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. (PIX11) — Artificial intelligence is creeping into our lives in many ways — one of the most promising possibilities is spotting guns before they can be used at schools.
PIX11 News got an inside look at one of the first schools in the country using the tech to better spot firearms in Mt. Holly, New Jersey.
At Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, something is always watching. It goes beyond the hundreds of security cameras Dr. Christopher Heilig, the superintendent, pointed out as he walked around the sprawling campus.
“As a school administrator, it’s a little bit different these days,” Heilig explained. “First and foremost, first thing in the morning, we’re always thinking security and safety.”
This is why his high school became one of the first in the country to add something extra by working with a company called ZeroEyes. It uses existing video cameras, coupled with artificial intelligence gun detection.
ZeroEyes software worked in the background to flag guns and draw a box around them when visible. Someone in the company’s operation center then immediately reviews the alert. If verified, they immediately notify school officials, dispatch and police.
“That’s why we founded ZeroEyes, to get an image of that gun and that shooter to the right people, so they can get there before shots fired and know what they’re getting into,” cofounder Sam Alaimo said. “That’s half the problem. First responders don’t know what they’re getting into. They get conflicting information in the fog of war.”
ZeroEyes is one of several companies implementing this type of artificial intelligence technology in places such as schools, hospitals and train stations. All of the founders are retired Navy SEALs, and they only hire retired members of the military and law enforcement for their operations center. They believe seeing a gun sooner saves lives.
“Depending on what source you get, be it the FBI or Secret Service or whatever, they say anywhere from two to 30 minutes the gun is exposed,” Alaimo said. “That is a significant amount of time. If you look at Parkland, the El Paso Walmart shooting, Uvalde, that gun is exposed for multiple cameras before the shot is fired.”
PIX11 News spoke with Alaimo at our Manhattan studios because he was already in town taking meetings. Here’s what he could say about the possibility of AI keeping an eye out for guns in New York City:
“We’re in contact with quite a few organizations here … in the commercial, education and government space, and we should be seeing something soon.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a self-professed fan of modern tech, has a whole team hunting down the latest innovations.
“They don’t get caught up in the day-to-day crisis,” Adams said at a recent press conference. “They are scanning and interviewing on new technology so we can run our city more efficiently.”
On the specific possibility of AI embedded within city school security, the New York City Department of Education told PIX11 News there was nothing for now, but “…we might have more by end of the month.”
However, putting artificial intelligence in school cameras is not without concern.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson at the University of Illinois has made a career of assessing and studying risk. He helped design TSA-Pre.
Jacobson points out that school shootings are extraordinarily rare. The gun violence killing kids is mostly outside of school and often involves suicide.
“When you have such rare events, you end up investing a lot of money, and you end up losing the opportunity to use that resources for things more valuable for students,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said when it comes to preventing mass shootings, there are basic things schools and local law enforcement can do to slow down shooters and improve response times like drills and door hardening. He is particularly skeptical of versions of weapon-spotting technology that try to identify hidden guns in bags or underneath coats, leading to false alarms.
“What is the impact on the students, especially if this happens a few times a year, from their emotional well-being and their mental health,” Jacobson said.
To alleviate some of those privacy concerns, ZeroEyes trained its AI to only track visible firearms.
“Not faces. We did not want to invade privacy. We didn’t want to see faces and have ethical concerns. The goal is to stop mass shootings,” Alaimo said, adding that all screens in his operation center sit dark most of the time. He said they only light up for review when the artificial intelligence spots a gun.
Plus, it takes a real person to trigger an active shooter alert.
“The reason we have that human in the loop is to make sure when we dispatch it, it is the real deal,” he said. “We don’t want to get a client thinking they have a mass shooting when in fact it’s a child holding a cell phone in a way that looks like a pistol.”
At Rancocas Valley, one active shooter drill sold the community on using AI.
Superintendent Heilig showed PIX11 News video that showed officers respond 300% quicker and immediately find the simulated shooter in the building with the technology.
Rancocas has trained students and staff, bought the secure doors, and hired armed security, but Heilig said technology like ZeroEyes is the missing piece of the puzzle in schools.
“Those other things may keep people safe,” he said. “ZeroEyes decreases that response time almost down to nothing so that we know we are saving lives.”