Published on October 16th, 2012 | by Brian Gendron
CLASSIFIED: Project Pigeon
What if I said ‘missiles steered by birds’ could fly at you in a moments notice? You’d probably assume we were in World War II… when this was real.
B. F. Skinner (the psychologist known for training pigeons and writing awesome books like Waldon Two) is quite famous for his work on operant conditioning, in which behavior is altered by its consequences. Generally speaking, when a behavior is followed by a reward, the chances of that behavior occurring again may increase (and punishment may lower that chance). Give a dog a bone, and it will associate it’s preceding behavior with bone-receiving outcomes.
This research eventually led to pigeon-guided missiles, in a once-classified project commissioned by the U.S. government.
A quote by Dr. Skinner sets the stage, recounting the history of events leading to this research:
“The ethical question of our right to convert a lower creature into an unwitting hero is a peacetime luxury. There were bigger questions to be answered in the late thirties. A group of men had come into power who promised, and eventually accomplished, the greatest mass murder in history.”
In an attempt at fighting in any way a psychologist knows how… Skinner began, and successfully tested, one wild idea. While strapped inside a rocket, pigeons were trained to make various guiding movements with their bodies, in exchange for a reward. Thanks to operant conditioning, pigeons readily maneuvered missiles in the correct direction (and were then handsomely remunerated with food, of course).
Is that bird steering a missile? Why yes, yes it is.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all first-rate for the pigeons; their bodies were strapped down so they could only move their heads. They were probably uncomfortable with the whole set up, in addition to exploding upon impact. Here is where we see those ethical questions Skinner referred to.
In the 1950s, superior (non-pigeon) technology became available, and the government ditched the project. However, operant conditioning is still alive and well. For example, look what you can train a dog to do: