Pigeons Identify Cancer as Well as Paid Professionals

When most people think of pigeons, they imagine small gray birds who aren’t very smart. After all, they are bird brains, right? A recent study on the fascinating creatures will make you think twice. In a study led by Richard Levenson from UC Davis and Edward Wasserman from the University of Iowa, sixteen pigeons were trained to identify cancer by being shown slides from biopsies of breast tissue, some with malignant cells and others with benign ones. The pigeons were presented with a yellow and a blue button. If the bird guessed correctly for whether or not there was cancer and clicked the right button, it was awarded with a pellet. If the bird was wrong, the animal did not receive a thing.

cancerous epithelial cells

Cancerous epithelial cells

Since the birds were placed in a box during its training and had no contact with humans, the pigeons were not simply observing and then copying what a human did. All of their hard work was on their own. Plus, the slides that the pigeons were analyzing were in different magnifications and sizes; the birds couldn’t have been memorizing the right answers. After a single month of training, the highest rate of accuracy for one pigeon was approximately 80%. The entire group’s combined accuracy was about 99%. This is the same rate as human experts.

The results are astonishing considering that these pigeons have not been trained for very long or have much of an education. The study also leads to an important question: If pigeons identify cancer as well as humans after a month of training, why haven’t more computers been programmed to do the same thing? Instead of wasting time and money on training professionals to complete the task, it would be much more efficient to create computer programs. If this is implemented in hospitals, the results would be faster and more precise.

Ultimately, the most important thing is for cancer patients to be diagnosed and treated sooner so that the patient can be there for loved ones. It is important for more people to reasearch not only ways to cure cancer, but also more ways to identify cancer, which is exactly what this study is all about.

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Mona Amirseyedian


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