Can a Computer Stop a Bullet? – A.I. and the Battle to Prevent Mass Shootings

Motley Staff Writer John Hunter talks to the founder of NeverAgainTech, Shreya Nallapti about her artificial intelligence invention to predict and prevent mass shootings. 

Shreya Nallapati tells Motley she is part of “the mass-shooting generation”. Born in Denver, Colorado in 2000, Nallapati grew up in the shadow of the state’s infamous mass-shootings: the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the Aurora Movie Theatre shooting in 2012 and the Arapahoe High School shooting in 2013. Understandably, these events troubled her as she was “tired of hearing friends and family being impacted, without being able to do anything about it”. But it was nearly 19 years after the tragedy at Columbine, that another tragedy would cause her to act. 

On the afternoon of the 14th February 2018, a student, armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic assault rifle, committed a mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 more. The news of the attack went around the world, most famously the words of survivor-turned-activist Emma González who called out the relationship between politicians and the infamous National Rifle Association (NRA) and their inaction towards gun-control.  Nallapati’s personal connection to the landscape of Colorado’s mass-shootings coupled with the pain that she saw in Parkland, and the bravery of the survivors, led her to pair her newly-found activism with her background in technology and A.I. to create NeverAgainTech

The project is mainly concerned with the analysis of text-based posts on the internet, to determine if the poster is a credible threat and whether a violent incident will occur. They look for very specific phrases and ideas within the text that have often come up before mass shootings, such as expressing hatred for specific minority groups and planning on doing something about it. When they find a credible threat, they will then forward the information onto law enforcement officials who would then investigate it and potentially take action.

Nallapati explained that A.I. is basically teaching computers to do what humans would do and that usually it “takes the form of pattern detection”. This means that instead of a person manually sifting through the lists of potential threats from a specific page, the A.I. can be taught to look for the key things that humans looked for in the posts and then be able to flag ones that meet the requirements. A human researcher will then validate the post the A.I. flagged because “no A.I. is perfect”. A.I. benefits this venture greatly as it reduces the amount of time the analysis would take. Nallapati claims that they can crawl (download and analyse) through “a million posts in less than 30 seconds”, while the classification process takes “around an hour or so”. The organisation has grown substantially since its inception in 2018, and now has over 200 people working on the project.

While COVID-19 has reduced the number of mass gatherings in the United States, and therefore reduced the number of mass shootings, gun sales skyrocketed throughout 2020 with nearly 17 million firearms sold, likely due to fear caused by the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the renewal of racial justice protests. Nallapati is not optimistic about a post-COVID-19 America, citing the large spike in gun buying, anti-Asian-American sentiment becoming more commonplace and the threat posed by extremist groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

Political steps are being taken to address these issues, such as the Biden campaign planning to “create a task force focusing on the connection between online threats and stalking, and real-world consequences like extremism and violence” when he takes office in January. But hope that the United States won’t return to regular mass gun-violence following COVID-19 seems to be in short supply. 

For more information on the work of #NeverAgainTech, visit their website: https://neveragaintech.org