BF SKINNER and PROJECT PIGEON

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In one of the odder stories of World War II, the US military backed an investigation into weapons guided by trained pigeons. The investigation was conducted by the well-known behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

In early 1942, Skinner, then of the University of Minnesota, conducted preliminary studies on the concept of using trained animals as a guidance system. The studies were funded at a low level by General Mills, a major food producer. The US National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), which funded new technologies that might be useful for winning the war, was skeptical of the idea, but in mid-1943 awarded a $25,000 USD contract to General Mills to continue the work. The investigation was codenamed Project PIGEON (or ORCON for “Organic Control”), and Skinner hoped to be able to use pigeons to guide a weapon to within 6 meters (20 feet) of a target.

Three pigeons were each tucked into a jacket made of a sock and then put into a harness inside the guidance system, facing a screen. An image of the target was projected onto each of the three screens through a lens system in the nose of the weapon, with crosshairs defined by beams of light. Each pigeon was supposed to peck at its screen, which was wired to provide feedback to the missile’s flight controls, to keep the crosshairs on target. The system accepted inputs from all three pigeons, but only acted if two or all three agreed.

The pigeons were trained with slides of aerial photographs of the target, and if they kept the crosshairs on the target, they were rewarded by a grain deposited in a tray in front of them. Skinner later found that the pigeons were less easily disturbed under confusing circumstances if they were fed hemp (marijuana) seeds rather than grains.

Skinner hoped to fit the pigeon guidance system to a Pelican, but he never managed to overcome official skepticism. When he put on a demonstration in New Jersey of the pigeon guidance system for officials of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) he was bitterly frustrated to see they were amused instead of impressed.

Project PIGEON was abandoned. Skinner went home with 24 trained pigeons, which he kept in a dovecote in his garden. Whether the idea was practical or not, it appears that Skinner as a academic psychologist simply was not on the same wavelength as the industrial engineers and military officials he was trying to work with, and never managed to communicate with them effectively.