Project Pigeon

B.F. Skinner

“Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on 20 March 1904 in the small railroading town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania,” writes Raymond E. Fancher in Pioneers of Psychology.” 1 Thomas H. Metos notes in The Human Mind that “Skinner and others developed the learning theory known as operant (or instrumental) conditioning, in which the stimulus follows the behavior, as opposed to classical conditioning, in which the stimulus always precedes the behavior.” 2

Charles S. Carver & Michael F. Scheier explain in Perspectives on Personality:

Classical conditioning is a passive process. When a reflex occurs, conditioning apparently doesn’t require you to do anything.… Instrumental conditioning, in contrast, is an active process (cf. Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts). The events that define it begin with a behavior on your part (even if the “behavior” is the chosen act of remaining still).3

“Skinner used two other tools in his operant conditioning to learning,” writes Metos:

One was the procedure called shaping, that is, using reward to guide the subjects natural behavior toward the desired behavior gradually. The other tool was changing the emphasis from rewards to reinforcers.

There are two kinds of reinforcers.… For humans, a positive reinforcer is approval, attention, money, or promotion, for example. A negative reinforcer for a rat is an electric shock that is stopped, thus becoming a reward. In humans, withdrawal of approval by parents may make a child study harder and get better grades. The basis of reinforcement is that whether a positive or a negative reinforcement is used, it strengthens the behavior of the laboratory animal or human.4

Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. - B.F. Skinner World War Two pigeon guided bomb
Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. www.arischindler.com

Harvey Mindess relates in Makers of Psychology how “during World War II, Skinner conducted a series of experiments in which he trained sets of pigeons to navigate bombs dropped from aircraft so they would hit their targets accurately. The pigeons were to be harnessed inside the nose cones of the bombs.” 5

A web page that appears to have been removed from an all things vector website described the process:

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.6

Charles & Ray Eames provide in A Computer Perspective:

Skinner’s control system used a lens in the nose of the bomb to throw an image of the approaching target on a ground-glass screen.… If the target’s image moved off center, the pigeon’s pecking tilted the screen, which moved the bomb’s tail surfaces, which corrected the bomb’s course. To improve accuracy, Skinner used three pigeons to control the bomb’s direction by majority rule [Charles Eames and Ray Eames, A Computer Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 131].7

B.F. Skinner World War Two pigeon guided bomb

“These birds would have been the equivalent of modern guidance computers,” notes Robert I. Watson, Sr. and Rand B. Evans in The Great Psychologists.8 Mindess explains:

Bizarre as it sounds, the experiment apparently worked, and Skinner was eventually able to interest the army brass in observing a demonstration. The operation became known as “Project Pigeon” [compare “Project OrCon” i] and was classified until [1958 ii] It was never used, however, partly because the officers who considered it found it ludicrous, but also because by this time the U.S. was preparing to launch the atom bomb.9

“Skinner went home with 24 trained pigeons, which he kept in a dovecote in his garden,” according to the vector website on another removed page.10


Notes

i Silent video shows the project Skinner worked on during World War Two from B.F. Skinner Foundation, Project Pigeon (OrCon), at http://www.bfskinner.org/bfskinner/Project_Orcon.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

ii Cited in lecture notes by James H. Capshew, “Engineering Behavior: Project Pigeon, World War II, and the Conditioning of B.F. Skinner,” Technology and Culture, 34, 1993, at University of Dayton, OH, http://www.udayton.edu/~psych/DJP/histsys/pdfhs/hsbehavior2.pdf (retrieved: circa 2000).

Related links

1 Raymond E. Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 304.

2 Thomas H. Metos, The Human Mind: How We Think and Learn (New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1990), p. 99.

3 Charles S. Carver & Michael F. Scheier, Perspectives on Personality, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996), p. 339.

4 Metos, The Human Mind, pp. 99, 102.

5 Harvey Mindess, Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor (New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1988), p. 96.

6 Greg Goebel, See “Project Pigeon,” vectorsite.net, at http://www.vectorsite.net/avbomb3.html#m5 (retrieved: circa 2006); See also Neilster, “Pigeon guidance system,” ww2aircraft.net, 14 July 2006, at http://www.ww2aircraft.net/forum/weapons-systems-tech/pigeon-guidance-system-4529.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

7 “Project Pigeon,” AsOfYet.org, in A Computer Perspective, By the Office of Charles & Ray Eames. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973, p. 131, at http://www.asofyet.org/muppet/other/insanities/project_pigeon.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

8 Robert I. Watson, Sr., and Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought, 5th ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publ., Inc., 1991), p. 491.

9 Mindess, Makers of Psychology, pp. 96-97.

10 vectorsite.net, http://www.vectorsite.net/twbomb3.html (retrieved: circa 2001) at “A Pigeon-Based Guidance System,” University of Utah, 10 October 2001, at http://www.cs.utah.edu/~regehr/research/pelican.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

See also

B.F. Skinner Foundation, at http://www.bfskinner.org/ (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Pigeon Rank, [parody] Google Technology, at http://www.google.com/technology/pigeonrank.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Kevin J. Crosby, “B.F. Skinner,” SkewsMe.com, at www.http://skewsme.com/skinner.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Kevin J. Crosby, “Behavioral Conditioning,” SkewsMe.com, at www.http://skewsme.com/behavior.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Kevin J. Crosby, “Conditioning,” SkewsMe.com in Tinfoil Hat, at http://skewsme.com/tinfoilhat/chapter/behavioral-conditioning/ (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Kevin J. Crosby, “Neural Computers,” SkewsMe.com, at www.http://skewsme.com/wetware.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Kevin J. Crosby, “Battle Cat,” SkewsMe.com, at http://skewsme.com/blog/2013/01/battle-cat/ (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

Related videos

“B.F.Skinner Project Pigeon,” Petr Klimovič video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMsSCryLMOg (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Watch it here)

“BF Skinner Foundation – Pigeon Ping Pong Clip,” bfskinnerfoundation video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGazyH6fQQ4 (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Watch it here)

“B. F. Skinner – -,” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8mJUjljOJM (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

“B. F. Skinner (3),” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-NlINHHKPI (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

“B. F. Skinner – Modelagem,” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm5FGrQEyBY (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

“B. F. Skinner – ,” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37djtako3I (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

“Skinner fala sobre a Maquina de Ensinar,” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmRmBgKQq20 (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

“Pombo utilizando instrumento,” Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJvBXPxFwsI (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

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