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Hitting the Books: During World War II, Even Our Pigeons Joined the Fight

IBefore and throughout World War II, ethology researchers thoroughly embraced film technology as a means of better capturing the day-to-day experiences of their test subjects Subject matter – whether exploring the nuances of contemporary chimpanzee society or conducting a macabre rat-eat-rat survival experiment to determine the planet’s “carrying capacity.” However, once the research was completed, much of the scientific content was put on hold.

In his new book, The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life ), Dr. Ben Schultz-Figueroa, assistant professor of film studies at Seattle University, took these historical archives out of the vacuum of academic research to study them How it has influenced science and ethics in America since then. In the excerpt below, Schulz-Figueroa recounts Allied efforts in warfare to use live pigeons as airborne targeting reticles to guide precision aerial munitions to their targets.

University of California Press

Excerpted from The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life

by Ben Schultz-Figueroa, published by University of California Press. © 2023 Ben Schultz-Figueroa.

Project Pigeon: Rendering Animals of War Through Optical Techniques

In his 1979 autobiography In Making the Behaviorist , BF Skinner recounts the fate of taking the train to Chicago after the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940.The famous behaviorist was gazing out the train window, contemplating the destructive power of aerial combat, when his eyes were surprised to see “a flock of birds flying beside the train, and they were circling in the air.” Skinner recalls: “Suddenly , I see them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability. Couldn’t they guide missiles? Observing the flock’s coordination, its “lift and turn”, inspired Skinner’s vision for air combat A new vision that combines the senses and movement of a living animal with the destructive power of modern ballistics. On a whim, he embarks on a three-year project to weaponize pigeons, code-named “Project Pigeon,” to let pigeons guide With bombs flying from inside the nose, the project connects laboratory research, military technology, and private industry.

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His strange story has been widely discussed as some sort of historical fluke, an odd one-off in military R&D. Even at the time, one of the major obstacles to the Dove program, as Ginner himself described it, was viewing the pigeon-guided missile as a “crazy idea.” But in this section, I will argue that this is actually the case in the modern technological environment A vivid example of the weaponization of animals, in In this environment, optical media are increasingly deployed on the battlefield, a shift that has increasingly strategic and ethical implications for the conduct of warfare. Fight today. I demonstrate that Project Pigeon is historically at the intersection of a pivotal transition in warfare, from an elaborate chess-playing model of generals and their armies to an ecological framework in which a multitude of non-human agents play a critical role effect. A similar shift in artificial intelligence, as Jussi Parikka recently described, is a shift toward “agents that express complex behavior, not through preprogramming and centralization, but through autonomous, emergent, and distributed capabilities.” The premise of the missile, developed and marketed by Project Pigeon, is to transform pigeons from individual consciousness into living machines, emptying out intentionality so as to leave only controllable but dynamic and complex behaviors that can be designed and operated without a human commander operate under supervision. It’s a reimagining of the combatant, no longer dependent on a human participant in decision-making, but instead on a complex series of interactions between organisms, equipment, and the environment. As we will see, the vision of pigeon-guided bombs heralds the non-human vision of smart bombs, drones, and military robots, with artificial intelligence and computer algorithms replacing the operations of their animal counterparts.

Media and film scholars have written extensively about the changing visual landscape of the battlefield and the place of film in this changing history. Armies from around the world push for film to be used in unconventional ways. According to Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, the U.S. military has historically used film as an “iterative device with multiple capabilities and functions,” experimenting with the design of cameras, projectors, and screens to suit new strategic interests. As Wasson argues in her chapter on experimental screening practices, the U.S. Army “boldly dismantled cinema’s established procedures and structures, rephrasing film projection as an integral part of an evolving institution with highly complex needs.” As propaganda, the film was used to portray the military to civilians at home and abroad; as a training film, it was used to instruct large numbers of recruits on an ongoing basis; as an industrial film and an advertising film, different branches of the military used it to talk to each other. Like these examples, Project Dove relies on a wholly unorthodox use of film, taking it into new territory, intervening in the long-standing relationship between the moving image and its audience in order to moderate its impact on non-human audiences as well as humans. Here we will see the hitherto unstudied use of optical media, where film was the catalyst for the transformation of animals into weapons and combatants.

Project Pigeon is a distinguished and influential career of one of the first projects to emerge. Skinner would go on to become one of the most famous voices in American psychology, introducing the “Skinner box” to the study of animal behavior and the hugely influential theory of “operant conditioning.” His influence is not limited to the realm of science, but is widespread in conversations in political theory, linguistics, and philosophy. As James Capshew has shown, many of Skinner’s later, better-known studies had their origins in military research into pigeon-guided ballistics. Developed from an initial independent experiment in 1940, Project Dove received funding from the US Army Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1943. The effort culminated in placing three pigeons on the missile’s head; the birds were trained to peck at a screen showing incoming targets. These pecks are then translated into instructions for the missile’s guidance system. His target is a 1940s version of a smart bomb, which of course is able to correct mid-flight based on the target’s movement. Although the Dove program developed relatively quickly, the U.S. Army was ultimately denied further funding in December 1943, effectively ending Skinner’s short-lived oversight of the program. In 1948, however, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory took up Skinner’s research and renamed it “Project ORCON” — short for “organic” and “controlled.” Here, under Skinner’s consultation, the tracking ability of pigeons to guide missiles to their intended targets was systematically tested, demonstrating a huge difference in reliability. In the end, the performance and accuracy of the pigeons depended on so many uncontrollable factors that the ORCON project was terminated like the previous Project Pigeon.

Moving imagery plays two central roles in Project Pigeon: first, as a way to locate pigeons in space and test the accuracy of their responses, in what Harun Farocki calls “manipulating image” example, and secondly, as a tool to convince potential sponsors that pigeons are capable of acting as weapons. The first use of moving image technology appeared in the final design of the pigeon program, where each of the three pigeons was constantly Responding to a camera obscura mounted on the front of the bomb. The pigeon was trained to determine the shape of an upcoming target on a single screen (or “dish”) by pecking at the bomb as it fell, which would cause it to change course. His screen is connected to the bomb’s guides via four small rubber pneumatic tubes attached to each side of the frame that direct a constant air flow to the pneumatic pickup system that controls the bomb’s thrusters. As Skinner explains: “When the missile hits the target, the pigeon pecks the center of the dish, all the valves suck in an equal amount of air, and the bulge stays in the neutral position. But if the image is off-center it’s only A quarter of an inch, corresponding to a very small angular displacement of the target, valves on one side will admit more air, and the resulting displacement of the drum will send appropriate corrective commands directly to the servos.”

In later iterations of the ORCON project, pigeons were tested and trained on color film taken from footage of jets conducting dive runs on destroyers and freighters, and in between Pneumatic relay servos and screens were replaced by electric currents. Here, camera obscura and training film were used to incorporate the live behavior of pigeons into the mechanics of the bomb itself, and to create an immersive simulation for these non-human pilots to fully implement their behavior.

The second use of moving images for this study was realized in a set of promos for Project Pigeon, which Skinner owes in large part to initial funding from General Mills Inc. and The Navy later updated the research into the ORCON project. Skinner’s letters indicate that multiple films were made for this purpose, often re-edited to incorporate new footage. So far, I’ve only been able to find one of the many films Skinner has produced, the latest of which was made to promote the ORCON project. Whether previous versions existed but have not been discovered, or whether they were taken apart to create each new version is unclear. Based on surviving examples, these promotional films appear to have been used to dramatize pigeons as reliable and controllable instruments. Their images show birds surrounded by cutting-edge technology, responding quickly and efficiently to a series of dynamically changing stimuli. The promotional videos played a key rhetorical role in convincing government and private sponsors to back the project. A demo, Skinner wrote, “has been shown so many times that it has worn itself out—but eventually found good support for a thorough investigation.” In stark contrast, Skinner writes: “The scene of a living pigeon completing a task, however beautiful, serves only to remind the committee how wonderful our proposal is.” Here, the moving image performs an essentially symbolic function, mainly Focus on portraying the image of weaponized animal bodies.

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