South Africa's homicide rate per capita is currently the 10th highest in the world, nearly 5x higher than that of the United States. I grew up in Johannesburg from 1992-1999 - during this time, it was twice as bad as it is now.

As a child, I grew up constantly hearing of harrowing personal accounts from family friends who were carjacked and robbed at gun point. The government would run advertisements on television advising people to not stop for traffic lights at night unless absolutely necessary. The flats we lived in had 3 levels of security - a spiked metal fence for the complex, steel reinforced doors for the unit, and another layer of steel reinforced doors to go upstairs where the bedrooms were.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when one of our close family friends who was the founder of a Chinese-language newspaper was fatally shot in his own home during an intrusion.

My mother decided to take a leap of faith and bring me and my sister to the United States on an H-1B visa paying a meager wage. We were evicted from my aunt's house after 3 months, and another relative took us in until my mother could afford our own apartment.

9 years in the Marine Corps and an MBA later, I decided to tackle an issue that I am deeply passionate about and started a company that develops AI software to automatically identify gun threats. We are now raised over $1 million of venture funding and are working with schools in Chicago, New York, and Seattle.

Ask me anything!

Here is a recent article about us:


Comments: 1894 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

UnitedStatesSailor1737 karma

Dude things may have changed since I got out of the Navy but you are literally going against every single DOD PII training I’ve ever seen by posting the pic of your CAC card. I do believe this would count as photocopying your ID to an extent which is punishable under the UCMJ.

sonnytai890 karma

Thank you for the heads up. My mistake. Knew that the EDIPI was on the back, but didn't know the barcode could be used to extract PII. Makes sense.

UnitedStatesSailor575 karma

No problem, I just didn’t want to see someone get in trouble for this, I’ve seen court Marshall’s for dumber things.

Edit: I’m leaving the spelling error because it’s funny. Reminds me of How I Met Your Mother. Turns out auto correct on my iPhone keeps doing the duck fuck version of martial and Marshall for me. It happened twice. What a Major Pain in the ass.

Perm-suspended345 karma

Ehh, he's gonna be fine. He's an O-3. I was an E-3 that lost mine in fucking Iraq. They had to convoy me to Kuwait to get a new one 😯

sonnytai335 karma

If it makes you feel any better, I lost my passport in Cape Town a few years ago. I had to convince the lady at the SAA counter to let me fly back to Johannesburg using my US driver's license, and have one of my friends drive me to the US consultate in Sandton to get a temporary passport so I could come home, haha

duanesmallman951 karma

the natural end of unchecked mass surveillance technology is a police state that erodes the civil liberties of the public under the guise of safety. as a developer and steward of technology that works by actively identifying individuals as “threats”, what are you doing to ensure it can never be used in a manner that exploits the populace? under what conditions would you refuse to accommodate the requests of government and local law enforcement?

sonnytai484 karma

Great question!! We don't do any facial recognition, we only identify the contour of a hand holding a weapon. We also don't provide this information directly to law enforcement - the information is provided to the institution's internal security teams, that acts as the "human in the loop" who analyzes the threat and makes a decision on further action.

We also don't store any video data - it is scrubbed every 24 hours, except for "detected frames", which are then used to retrain the model. Institutions are fully informed of our privacy processes can opt out of the training data collection if they prefer.

Does this answer your question fully?

lemaymayguy183 karma

Based off previous school shootings, do you think your low paid "human in the loop" security team will risk their own life 100 percent knowing the suspect is heavily armed? See Parkland sherriff

sonnytai84 karma

Our objective is to provide security teams, and by proxy, law enforcement response dispatchers with the most timely and accurate information needed to make critical decisions.

In the future, we have plans to build an operations center that will handle the "human in the loop" aspect (similar to ADT), however, this is not something that the institutions we are currently working with have asked for.

Kalepsis160 karma

How does the system distinguish between an assailant holding a weapon and, say, a child holding a squirt-gun?

sonnytai138 karma

Presuming that the squirt gun looks nothing like a real firearm (I was a big super-soaker fan back in the day!), our model would ignore it.

If it looks very similar to a real weapon (e.g. like an airsoft gun), the model will register a detection, and as mentioned, it would be up to the "human-in-the-loop" - currently somebody on staff at the school or office that we're working to make a decision. A human being should be able to derive from context what is a real weapon threat and what isn't, and "context" is currently something that computer vision models still struggle with.

mightystassen428 karma


sonnytai271 karma

Thanks for the question! We actually don't store any data - all if it is scrubbed after 24 hours. The only exception is we will retain any detected frames as training data to retrain the computer vision model, and if an institution that we're working with is uncomfortable with that, they can opt out of that as well.

All in all, storing video data is already redundant with an institution's video management system capabilities, so we felt that it was better for us to entirely sidestep the privacy question by storing as little of customer data as possible.

high_side180 karma

We actually don't store any data - all if it is scrubbed after 24 hours.

Is there any way for the public to validate this? We've obviously heard this story time and time again (from others).

we will retain any detected frames as training data to retrain the computer vision model

This seems suboptimal as you need to train on both positive and negative data (traditionally). Do you use real + staged positives and only staged negatives?

it was better for us to entirely sidestep the privacy question by storing as little of customer data as possible.

Are there other motivating factors to this business decision? Or could it change with a government contract, desire to identify threats across clients, or engineer wanting a larger corpus of training data?

When you say "customer data", you're talking about companies, not their clientele, yes?

sonnytai92 karma

Thanks for the response -

Is there any way for the public to validate this? We've obviously heard this story time and time again (from others).

It's within our contract that the institutions we work with sign with us. It would not be in our best interest to breach the contract, and there is also no incentive for us to store this data (it's already a capability that the video management system provides).

This seems suboptimal as you need to train on both positive and negative data (traditionally). Do you use real + staged positives and only staged negatives?

We use real (as in, security camera crime scenes scraped online) positives and staged (customer walkthrough, our own photos/video) positives, and scraped negatives (it's much easier to scrape data on the internet on security camera scenes that don't involve a firearm than ones that do).

Are there other motivating factors to this business decision? Or could it change with a government contract, desire to identify threats across clients, or engineer wanting a larger corpus of training data?

When you say "customer data", you're talking about companies, not their clientele, yes?

We made this decision early on when our company was formed because we wanted to build something that makes a positive impact on public safety without building something that has the potential to be abused in nefarious ways. It's for this reason that we made a conscious decision not to work at all in facial recognition. It is deeply rooted in the values of our team to build something that will cannot be repurposed to violate individual privacies and civil liberties.

As for "customer data", we mean the video data from the institutions that we work with, whether it be school districts, governments, or companies.

Please let me know if any areas are still unclear!

trollin_phace101 karma

I don’t have a question, but thank you for not naming your company something like “Liberty Defense System” from that Forbes article linked in the OP. Cause, you know, nothing screams “liberty defense” like government video cameras scanning the personal belongings of the masses.

sonnytai86 karma

Haha, we decided to name the company as "Aegis" for two reasons:

- The shield of Zeus in Greek Mythology

- US Navy radar system that is currently deployed on the Arleigh Burke class destroyers that can automatically track hundreds of incoming threats.

We felt that tracking gun threats in existing security camera feeds was quite similar :-)

SimulatedEnvironment43 karma

We don’t store any data

All of it is scrubbed after 24 hours

so we felt that it was better for us to entirely sidestep the privacy question by storing as little of customer data as possible

Sounds like data storage to me. How is it determined what data does get stored, how much of it to store, and for how long? 100% Transparency is key here.

sonnytai21 karma

If a detection is made (e.g. someone is carrying a black power tool through the hallway and it registers as a pistol detection), we use those frames to retrain the model and improve its accuracy. All other video data is discarded within 24 hours. We are completely transparent about this with the institutions that we work with, and they are free to opt out of this process. Thus far, all of the institutions that we work with have expressed that they are comfortable with the process of very limited use of detected frames to retrain the computer vision model.

RemoteProvider249 karma

How is this going to save lives during an incident, given that active shooter events are over in less than ten minutes on average?

sonnytai201 karma

The average active shooter incident actually lasts 12.5 minutes, but it takes law enforcement an average of 18 minutes to respond and neutralize the threat.

Our objective is to provide clarity of information to an extremely chaotic situation, allowing building occupants and law enforcement to know:

  1. Where is the shooter?
  2. What is he armed with?
  3. Is there more than 1 shooter?
  4. What does the shooter look like?

These are critical pieces of information for law enforcement to respond in a rapid and targeted manner, and for building occupants to best execute their defensive and evacuation measures.

joris124 karma

Cant this be done with a bunch of cheap IP cameras and some panic buttons?

sonnytai152 karma

Institutions generally already have IP cameras in place, and we integrate with them. What we're building is more effective and possibly cheaper than panic buttons, because:

Cheaper: - No hardware installation required.

More effective: - Provides real time information about the threat - Can track threat from camera-to-camera - Does not require somebody who is directly under threat-of-life to manually trigger an alarm.

csd2csd227 karma

Is there a minimum or maximum resolution and frame rate the cameras must be for your software? I assume you train the AI on lower quality video.

sonnytai32 karma

We currently sample frames from the video management system at 3fps, and we compress the frames to 608x608 before processing them. We have some data science techniques we can deploy, such as digital zoom that can enable us to detect at longer distances.

Pretty much all of the cameras that have been deployed within the last 8 years or so would have acceptable resolution for us to work with.

throwaway2395758 karma

How does any of this reduce police response time, which is the real issue here?

sonnytai99 karma

Awesome question -

It currently takes an average of 18 minutes for law enforcement to respond to an active shooter threat (Naval Postgraduate School of Homeland Security Study).

The reason typically isn't because they are stuck in traffic. It's because:

  • It takes an average of 5 minutes for the first 911 calls to be made, because people are in fight/flight response and don't always immediately reach for their phones.
  • 911 dispatchers receive conflicting/delayed information from callers because of the chaos and confusion of the situation.
  • Police often arrive on scene with no idea where the shooter is, what the threat situation is, and what the shooter looks like, further inhibiting response.

Our tech provides additional clarity of information to enable law enforcement to respond with pinpoint precision, and for building occupants to make the best decisions to maximize their chances of survival.

Perm-suspended183 karma

Hey there CPT! Maybe you should blur the barcode on your CAC at least? It contains some PII.

sonnytai50 karma

Ohhhh, didn't actually know that. Thanks for the heads up. I'll do so when I can get to my laptop!

FarterTed97 karma

How could she get an H1B visa where she only gets paid $12 an hour? This smells of fraud

sonnytai63 karma

I think the boss was committing fraud and we didn't know any better at the time. It was a Chinese woman running a furniture company and my mom was hired as a Procurement Manager. They went out of business 15 years ago.

subcide9 karma

Serious question, if you've ever asked your mother this: if trying to escape gun violence, why America? Why not (recent events aside), New Zealand or Australia?

sonnytai9 karma

Several of my mates in school actually left for ANZ or the UK.

Like many immigrants, I'm guessing we were starry-eyed about the thought of coming to the United States, and had a very idealistic view of our nation.

We also came less than a year after Columbine, so many people in the world at the time didn't associate the US with gun violence as much as they do today (justified or not).

Oynus2 karma

Do you plan to work with the local police forces and government, or are you interested in privatization? As a fellow South African, the safety disparity as a result of wealth disparity between areas would only increase if this became a private venture.

sonnytai3 karma

Right now, what we have built is a tool that dramatically improves the flow of information, and it's up to the institution provide this information to either local police or private security.

In the future, we are looking to build an operations center to handle this element, and we can inform whichever responding force the customer designates.

SirBeethoven1 karma

How’d you get into AI? I’m thinking that I may try to learn some of that

sonnytai3 karma

With complete honesty - I coded when I was a teenager then got sucked into Diablo 2 and StarCraft, so I let that fall by the wayside.

I have a deeply rooted desire for tackling the gun violence epidemic due to my upbringing, so it was about building a talented technical team that shared my passion for the issue.

sixela24020 karma

Too lazy to scroll and see if someone already asked but what did you buy your mum as a thank you?

sonnytai1 karma

I bought a house in Austin that my mother and stepfather live in. They do pay me partial rent though. One of the biggest objectives of my life is to give my mom the comfortable life that she deserves.

CrackedHandsXIV-1 karma

Do you think the problem that caused your mom to move here was that citizens didn’t have the right to bear arms in South Africa that we have in our constitution? If so, is what you’re doing undermining the very thing that makes the people of this country safe and allowed her and you to move here. Don’t start the answer with “that’s a good question” I’m not interested in your approval I’m interested in the facts and what makes you think this contributes to our society and how we can avoid repeating the mistakes of South Africa

sonnytai6 karma

Our family friend who was fatally shot in his own home was armed. There were two intruders, one was shot, and the other escaped.

A lot of our family friends growing up were armed.

We are building this because we wanted to build a solution that sidesteps the political debate and can save lives in a cost friendly, non-intrusive manner.

We have investors who are very conservative (one has over 200 guns) and very liberal as well.

LongDingDongKong-1 karma

Where has the majority of your funding raised come from? Groups such as Bloomberg and Moms Demand Action?

For schools that allow teachers to concealed carry, as well as school resource officers carrying, will these set of alarms? Obviously a teacher with a ccw wont have it in their hands unless an active shooter event happens, but a poor ccw'er might have their gun printing through their clothes.

In reality, how will this system be effective? In the event a person with mental problems brings a gun to school with the intention of killing people, this doesnt seem like it would save any time.

With the camera AI system, the camera sees the person wall through the door, recognizes the threat, sends an alert to the school's security, they then review the footage and alert police. By the time that is all done, the criminal has most likely opened fire already.

It seems like your intention with this AI is to prevent the type of things experienced in Africa, which I think you missed the mark. The situation there seems more of gang violence, whereas school shootings are due to mental health problems in this country.

sonnytai1 karma

I'll answer your question in more detail soon, but we have not taken any money from political groups.

We have raised money from venture capital firms in New York and Silicon Valley, as well as individual angels and some of my and my co-founder's personal friends.

homeboy422-5 karma

You went from escaping gun violence in South Africa to settling in America? How does it feel to go from frying pan into the fire?

LongDingDongKong5 karma

Gun violence is vastly over exagerated in the US. There is less than 38k total deaths a year, 2/3 of which are suicides (which is not "violence"), and a majority of the rest are gang related. Gun deaths are very low now compared to decades ago.

sonnytai0 karma

Another way to think about it is:

We lose 12k+ to gun homicides every year. We've lost 7k servicemembers during the 18+ years of Global War on Terror.