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Pigeons can spot cancer with the accuracy of a human

What a coup for science.

A team of trained pigeons has successfully demonstrated it can spot a cancerous tumour in mammogram images - with the same accuracy as a human.

That's not to suggest the birds pooled their talents and flocked over to the nearest lab to show off their skills: a team led by Richard Levenson of the University of California and Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa trained 16 birds to "peck" a button when they are presented with a computer image of a cancerous mammogram scan.

Contrary to their idiotic behaviour - not moving out of the way of traffic, walking like muppets, crapping everywhere - pigeons actually have a visual advantage over humans for this task: they view the world with five different colours, as opposed to our three, and their brains don't "fill in" gaps or create patterns like ours do (which is why we're constantly seeing faces in pieces of burnt toast or clouds).

The study team trained the pigeons by placing them in a box with a computer screen. Images of previously diagnosed breast cancer histopathology slides were shown to the birds, along with a blue and yellow button. If the pigeon correctly identified a cancer cell, they were rewarded with a food pellet. If they were wrong, they received nothing. 

No, the pigeons didn't know what they were looking at - it's a form of pattern recognition. The birds learn in a matter of hours to distinguish cancerous from noncancerous cells, with an accuracy of 80 per cent after a month of training. While a single bird wasn't as capable as a single human, when the birds worked as a flock (the same samples shown to 16 birds) they returned an accuracy of 99 per cent - putting them on par with humans.

"The birds’ successes and difficulties suggest that pigeons are well-suited to help us better understand human medical image perception", wrote the research team, "and may also prove useful in performance assessment and development of medical imaging hardware, image processing, and image analysis tools."

While it's not proposed that pigeons replace lab technicians just yet, flocks of cell spotters could free up human researchers to carry out more complicated tasks. Like making tea. 

[Via: Science Mag]

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